Today the Supreme Court of Canada handed down an important decision about refugee claimants with criminal records.
Obviously, that’s a tough sell. With so many people in the world whose basic human rights are not protected by their home states (about 15 million at last count), advocating for the tiny subset of refugees who have been convicted of a crime is not easy.
The arguments in their favour, however, are familiar to us, even though they come with an echo of a kinder and gentler time. There are two principal reasons why we forgive criminals: rehabilitation and atonement. That is, our criminal justice system echoes these two ideas at many levels. A commitment to rehabilitation means believing that people can change, and can return to being productive members of society. A commitment to atonement means that we embrace that idea that those who have ‘done their time’ or ‘paid their dues’ should be free to resume their place as members of society.
It is true that not all Canadians hold these values with equal enthusiasm, but our justice system is built on them, and would be dramatically different without them. And few would deny them in all cases.
Today, the Supreme Court ruled that these values ought not be extended to those whose human rights are in such peril that they have sought refugee status. For those without the ability to seek protection at home, both their rehabilitation and their atonement will no longer be relevant to their ability to find a safe haven in Canada. Once a criminal, always a criminal, is the nub of today’s decision.
Being excluded from refugee protection is very close to the end of the line. Refugee law is designed to provide surrogate protection to people whose home states are unable or unwilling to protect their core human rights. Protection extends only to people who are at risk because of their race, religion, nationality, group membership or political opinion. The idea grew from thinking of those targeted by the Nazi regime. It is already a pretty narrow box.
When someone is excluded from refugee status, there is literally nowhere in the world that they can go to start their lives afresh – to live free from danger and plan a future. Excluded individuals are banished, not only from Canada, but from human society generally. We might delay their deportation for a time, but exclusion ensures that they cannot resume their lives in any ordinary way.
This result is unfair for those who have ‘paid their dues’ and ‘done their time’, and it makes a mockery of the idea of rehabilitation. But refugees are so far away from the centre of our concerns and compassion these days, I doubt that anyone will even notice this ruling.
A sad day indeed.