July 9, 2018 — On March 5, 2011, about 10:00pm, Jeune Sterson and Louis Frantz were hanging election posters for a presidential candidate in the upcoming elections. Haitian police abducted them. And their lifeless bodies were found the next day. In June that year, Serge Démosthène was arrested by Haitian police and died as a result of police torture.
A United Nations report addressing the deaths of Sterson and Frantz stated the UN Stablization Mission in Haiti “regularly receives reports of killings involving the Haitian National Police (HNP). In some instances, these allegations appear to indicate that a number of HNP officers have committed extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.”
A UN report into Démosthène’s death said the findings of their investigation “question the Haitian authorities’ compliance with the right to life, the right to be free from torture, and norms governing arrest, as well as respect for judicial independence.”
Haiti’s 10 million people are victims of a plague of violence spread by a political corruption and gangs. United Nations data shows there were 1,033 murders in Haiti in 2012 — over 10 in 100,000 Haitians are murdered. Canada’s murder rate is 1.68 per 100,000.But Haiti is nowhere near the top of the list, according to UN statistics for 2016. In Guatemala over 27 in 100,000 people are murdered. In Honduras, over 56 per 100,000 people are murdered. El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world, over 82 of every 100,000 people are murdered.
These are all countries, like Haiti, where the people have been oppressed by dictatorship, corruption, war lords and gangs. When Canadians think of a violent society, we may think of the United States — where five in 100,000 people are murdered. Haiti, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are multiples of the US murder rate.
And it’s not just murder. As a society governed by gangs and corruption, it should be no surprise that there is a rape epidemic in Haiti. The country doesn’t keep statistics on rape, which it only recently considered a crime. Abortion is illegal. A report by the Pan American Development Foundation, a project of the Organization of American States, estimated about 225,000 children — two-thirds of whom are girls — are given up by their parents to other families to work as slaves, where they are often victimized by violence and rape.
It is no mystery why people try to leave — especially if they come to the attention of gangs, corrupt police or paramilitary squads, or fall into servitude to a rapist.
But a decision by Donald Trump’s Attorney-General Jeffery Sessions made on June 11, 2018 now severely limits people from claiming asylum in the United States to escape violence from gangs or sexual violence.
Sessions’ decision was on a specific case, but he has told immigration judges it is their “duty to carry out this ruling.” Sessions’ decision revoked the protection granted by the US Board of Immigration Appeals to a El Salvadorean women. The woman was abused and raped by her ex-husband. It persisted even after she moved away to a different part of the country. She was threatened by her ex-husband’s brother, a police officer. In granting her asylum, the Board ruled the government of El Salvador was unable to protect the woman from her ex-husband. Sessions’ decision means the woman may be deported back to El Salvador.
Countries — like the United States and Canada — that have signed the global treaty on asylum have a duty to protect people who have a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” Sessions’ decision rejects the opinion held elsewhere, including Canada, that women are a “particular social group” covered by the treaty.
Trump’s anti-immigrant policies go far beyond finding and deporting those illegally in the United States. But that’s how he wants it framed. And, to a large extent, Canadian media has adopted Trump’s framing of the issue, projecting it to the effects of his policy push on Canada.
Trump’s policies and politics are pushing out asylum-seekers who are legally in the United States — that’s what Session’s decision was all about, it’s what Trump wants. The effect is clear from the statistics. Trump’s push has undermined the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires Canadian Border Services Agency staff to turn back anyone claiming asylum at a regular controlled border point. To avoid being turned back, those being pushed out by Trump cross into Canada where there is no border control point and the Agreement doesn’t apply.
From 2011 until 2015, the number of irregular crossings ranged between 600 and 700 a year. In 2016, numbers climbed to over 1600, with a significant rise after Trump’s November election. And in 2017, numbers spiked after Trump was sworn in. In Trump’s first first week he signed the “Protecting the Nation” executive order, which limited the right to asylum, and an executive order implementing his first Muslim travel ban. The message was received. The final number of irregular crossings in 2017 was almost 7,000.
The most significant crossing point is in southern Quebec where asylum-seekers take the very simple walk into Canada by following Roxton Road, in Clinton County, New York. And once again, Trump’s framing of the issue has led many media outlets to misrepresent the crossings at Roxton Road. International and Canadian law specifically protects people from legal penalty when crossing a border to make an asylum claim.
Media presentations that frame this as a story about illegal immigration, illegal immigrants, or illegal border-crossers are factually wrong in exactly the way Trump wants media to be wrong. He wants the story to be about someone else’s acts, not his. When Canadian journalists adopt this factually wrong diversionary reframing, they not only misinform, they unwittingly take Trump’s side.
And it’s that kind of wrong framing that leads to wrong policy responses. According to a Reuters report, one response from the Trudeau government has been to ask the US government to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement to apply across the entire border, not just at regular crossing points. It’s a bad idea. It would imply an acceptance of Trump’s unacceptable standards. It would put more barriers in front of those seeking protection from persecution.
But extending the Agreement is also just a political non-starter. Trump is narrowing criteria and pushing asylum-seekers out of his country. He’s not going to sign onto an extension of an agreement so Canada can turn more back.
Given that Trump has already undermined it, the rational approach is to cancel the Safe Third Country Agreement and allow asylum-seekers to make their claims at controlled Canada-US border points. Given the ease of crossing at Roxton Road there’s no reason to think it would have any effect on the numbers making claims. It would make asylum claims happen in a more orderly fashion. From a more rational process, the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board can determine who is fleeing due to persecution and requires asylum and return home those who don’t qualify. This is the way it always has been done and should be done.
But there’s one more important thing that happens when we realize Trump’s framing about and vilification of “illegal immigrant” is false. It re-focuses us on the situations asylum-seekers are fleeing. It reminds us that we need to work with all like-minded people and countries to prevent violence and persecution around the world.
People flee gang and political violence in Central America. They flee the violence under Hungary’s far-right government which discriminates against Romani people. They flee the sexual violence and discrimination in Nigeria. The flee religious persecution in Pakistan. We don’t want a world where people are having to flee their homes and families.
Canadians should be telling their government to do more to prevent radical, fascistic and criminal governments. Our collective security is strengthened when we help stop wars and don’t contribute to destabilization, which creates power vacuums filled by terror organizations, gangs, thugs and fanatics. Canada and like-minded countries need to do more to encourage democracy, stability, freedoms and human rights.
War, corruption, gangs and violence cause asylum-seekers to pick up and move. The right solution isn’t to stop them from moving. It’s to stop what they’re moving from. That’s not Trump’s framing. But when that frame is lifted, we can see it’s true.