May 2023 / Toronto
The stories of escape from escalating indiscriminate violence are harrowing. An adult daughter sharing how it took her and her diabetic mother six days to get to the Egyptian border. Another telling of calling Global Affairs Canada to register herself and family as bullets and bombs dropped all around them and being told to ‘shelter in place’; not hearing back until weeks later when a call came that there was space on a German airlift at a place twenty-five kilometers away. She made it and is now back home in Canada.
The fearful relief in the voice of a Global Affairs staffer who talked about the stories that he and his colleagues can tell about weeks of intense violence- finding the evidence around their homes on mornings as they stepped out to attend at work. He said, that in all the war zones he’s been in over his career, the eight weeks of siege in Khartoum was the most fearful he’s ever been. He of course, along with other staffers at our mission in Sudan were airlifted to Nairobi where our High Commission is located in East Africa.
There are many more of these stories- an older couple who finally was able to make it out on the plane of a foreign nation. Another, who was able to bring their grandmother- I’m assuming that she had no legal status in Canada. I’m assuming so, because I need to believe that our Canadian government who speak in our names, is a compassionate one. Is a fair one. Is one where racial and geopolitics do not inform decision-making in situations like this.
But, I’ve been waiting for the outpouring of political and media concerns for the Canadians (hyphenated and all) and Sudanese nationals caught in this cycle of violence - a civil war for all intents and purposes.
I know what we are capable of as a country. I watched as we turned on a dime to set up a temporary immigration program for individuals and families fleeing Ukraine mere weeks after Russia’s invasion. I watched that in spite of the human resources capacity issues we have within Canada immigration, we have been able to process over six hundred thousand temporary visa applications from Ukraine. That we have been able to welcome over one hundred fifty thousand Ukrainians from abroad and have found the financial resources to ensure some income support for the new arrivals to the tune of $417M. This does not include the costs of the two-week hotel stays, or the personnel costs of managing this important and necessary initiative, or the costs that provinces like Ontario are also incurring. As of end of March, Ontario had spent over $30M in emergency income supports for CUEAT visa holders. And the GTHA municipalities have invested untold dollars to pay for emergency hotel stays for arriving Ukrainians with no housing options. These are all good news stories. The way our governments should respond to international crises.
‘Whataboutism’, is often a distraction and I tend to stay away from these situational comparisons. They are often false equivalencies and do nothing more than move attention away from critical issues that need to be addressed. There are moments though, like this time we’re in, when the response of our government to similar situations is so glaringly different that it must be commented on. I’m also using it here to underscore that when and where there is political will, wheels turn and action happens.
It is difficult not to look at the situation in Sudan (or Yemen, Palestine, Eritrea) and not take note of the differential response between how Canada and Canadians responded to the early violence of war in Ukraine and the violence of the political struggle for power evolving into a civil war, in Sudan or the other countries listed earlier. The one obvious difference? Africa instead of Europe. Africans instead of Europeans. As actors in Canada’s immigration ecosystem we have to name and call out discrimination – whether it is occurring by permission or omission; or whether the racism is overt or perceived.
It was good to hear the Immigration Minister yesterday (I’m writing this on the second day of May) announce some measures to support Sudanese Canadians. The waiving of fees for travel documents and passports is welcomed. The extension of temporary visas for Sudanese international students, workers and visitors even more so. But the government can do more. It can offer temporary resident permits to relatives of Sudanese Canadians. One of the stories I recounted above, where the family had to make it to an airfield twenty-five kilometers from where they resided, the cousin who drove them for hours, making their way through numerous checkpoints, had to be left behind, to face a violent immediate future.
The OCASI Board decided that we had to say something to the Ministers of Global Affairs and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. So a letter was sent off with a number of recommendations, all informed by organizations and individuals in the Sudanese diaspora working to ensure the safety of as many of their people as possible. Canada must act on this situation with the urgency the developing situation calls for.
There’s another crisis that the Canadian government must also speak out on. I don’t doubt that Minister Joly has commented, I just don’t recall her raising it in the many media interviews she holds on a daily basis. The Canadian government’s investment in Africa has focussed primarily on AIDS and HIV prevention and treatment and necessarily community development. Many doing this work are members of the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) communities across Africa. They face daily homo/transphobia especially from governments heavily influenced by Christian Aid organizations from the geopolitical North, especially the US and Canada.
While we celebrate the progressive positioning of this issue in some Southern African countries, we are alarmed and deeply concerned at the quick march to criminalizing same gender love and relationships. The Ugandan government, has passed legislation against its LGBTI nationals. They’ve made it even illegal for someone to not report on the LGBTI neighbours, families, friends.
What is most egregious is that if convicted more than once for identifying as non-heterosexual or engaging in same gender/sex activities, one may face execution. The law has passed in the Ugandan parliament. It is only the signature of the President that it awaits.
The Canadian government needs to speak out against this regressive and draconian law. It must use all its diplomacy tools to stop this from going forward. It must speak up for the human rights of all people like it does in other contexts.
Even before this law, members of the LGBTI communities in Uganda and elsewhere have been fleeing the daily violence they experience, the loss of employment, the estrangement from family and community. Many have ended up in refugee camps like Kakuma in Kenya. Others more fortunate, we often think, have made it to Canada where they have filed claims for asylum. Many have been waiting years to present their stories to the Immigration and Refugee Board Members, individuals who make life and death decisions in their work on a daily basis. We must ensure they’re always educated and well versed on geopolitics.
Knowing the situation in Uganda, we are urging the Canadian government to place a moratorium on deportation to Uganda and other countries with draconian anti LGBTI laws and a history of state sanctioned violence against the communities. We are calling for an immediate acceptance of all asylum claims based on sexual orientation, gender identity from LGBTI Ugandans and others.
This is urgent. The flight to freedom is traumatic and takes a significant toll on the mental and physical health of asylum seekers. Having to wait in a system that is often opaque- not knowing for months (and often years) whether you’ll be granted protection by the Canadian State, or removed from Canada, exacerbates this trauma.
One narrative of Canada is our welcoming of those in need of protection. We boast internationally about our humanitarian impulses, about taking in more refugees per capita than any other country in terms of granting permanent residency. True or not, it is a story we tell to ourselves and that we deeply believe. Let us then live up to this impulse.
With the extension of the Safe Third Country across the entire border with the USA, we have shut down a safer path for desperate people fleeing for their lives. Let us at least alleviate the fear of those who made it into our Canadian home by letting them know, they’re welcome to stay permanently. Let us at the least, make one of narratives, the truth.