Hundreds of queer people disappeared from Canada last year, and you didn't even know it. In fact, they failed to arrive at our borders. And because we have no way of knowing their names, we can't seek justice for them.
On Dec 29, 2004, Canada and the United States implemented the Safe Third Country Agreement, which designates both countries as "safe" for refugees. As a result, people are forced to make their claim in the first of the two countries that they reach. So even if a person fleeing persecution must cross through the US en route to Canada, they have no choice but to try and make their cases in the States.
In 2005, the first year after the agreement was implemented, the number of refugee claims dropped by a third, and the decrease at the land border was even more dramatic, with numbers only at 51 percent of what they were in 2004. In other words, refugees are getting the message loud and clear: Canada's borders are closed to them now.
And while we have no way of gauging how many people fleeing persecution for being gay or trans were refused entry into Canada, we do know what they can expect when Canada slams its door in their faces. If they only recently arrived in the US, they have the option of making a claim there, but they have to do it with in one year. They might be thrown in jail in the meantime, and if their claim is refused, they will be deported back to the country they sought to escape. So many have no choice but to live underground as non-status workers, with no access to social services, and the constant threat of deportation hanging over their heads.
According to Janet Dench from the Canadian Council For Refugees, the Safe Third Country Agreement presents particular difficulties for queer refugees.
"One of the big issues that we've highlighted is the issue of the one-year deadline," she said in a recent phone interview. "In the US, you must make a claim within one year of arriving. People claiming based on sexual orientation might not know that they are eligible for protection. And if they are coming from a homophobic society, it might take longer than a year to grow into an understanding of who they are."
This is not to mention the fact that the designation of the US as "safe" for refugees is questionable, especially when it comes to queer people. Among the reactionary legislation that the Bush administration has ushered in recently is the Real ID Act, which makes it far more difficult for refugees to prove their claims of persecution. The Act penalizes people for not revealing every detail of their humiliation during their first encounter with an immigration official. So for example, if a woman is fleeing sexual violence, she could be deported for not describing every excruciating detail to the male immigration worker who interviews her the first time.
The US also casts a wide net when accusing people of providing "material support" for terrorism. Even if refugees are forced at gunpoint to pay bribes to militia groups in order to guarantee safe passage out of their home country, they are likely to be labelled as terrorists by the US government, and deported back to places where they could be tortured.
According to Dench, the Real ID Act disproportionately affects queers because, "the law makes it stricter in terms of providing corroborating evidence of persecution. When people are fleeing because of their sexual orientation, it's often not spelt out. Homophobia happens in the shadows in many parts of the world. Both the experience of being gay and the way people are persecuted is not always explicit."
Dench also points out that the act gives US immigration officials the discretion to judge people based on their demeanor. Ironically, an applicant could be rejected for not appearing gay enough.
Growing up in a Jewish family, I often heard about how the Canadian government turned its back on Jewish refugees during the Second World War. When asked how many Jews Canada would welcome, one high-ranking immigration official said, "none is too many." Today, the Safe Third Country Agreement is effectively closing the door to people who would have normally qualified for asylum under the Canadian immigration system, including people forced to leave home because their gay or trans identity puts them in grave danger.
We might never know their stories. That's why our community should fight the Safe Third Country Agreement, before more queer people silently disappear.