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Sukanya Pillay Headshot

What Humphrey Bogart's "Rick" Would Think of Bill C-31

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Wednesday was Refugee Rights Day, which got me thinking about Casablanca. There is a great -- though pitiable -- scene in the movie where a young Eastern European woman, Annina, confides in Rick (Humphrey Bogart), the saloon owner, prompting him to let her unsuspecting husband win at the roulette table. Why? Because she and her husband fled Nazi Bulgaria but are now stuck in Casablanca, trapped in limbo without proper travel documents.

The woman -- unbeknownst to her husband -- is ready to sleep with police inspector Renault to obtain exit visas for herself and her husband. Inspector Renault, seeking to carry on their tryst as long as he can, has set a huge price for the exit visas' sale and thankfully the saloon owner arranges for the woman's husband to win big. Annina is now free of the sordid relationship with Renault, and with the transit letters, she and her myopic husband can escape Nazi-overrun Casablanca for America, and build a free life.

The scene is great on many levels. It illustrates the vulnerabilities of individuals fleeing unjust persecution; the depravity of extortionist predators like Renault; and the desperate sacrifices of innocent asylum seekers -- like Annina -- whose desperation can result in re-victimization. The scene also shows how Rick's manifested compassion can make all the difference between persecution and a safe haven.

Casablanca was released in 1942 in the middle of World War II -- a great propaganda film touching on grave issues. In World War II, the world was ravaged not only by the scourge of war, but scores of asylum seekers who suffered torment and death when they could not find a safe haven. Canada itself turned away boats of Jews who were forced to return to Europe where they were sent to Nazi concentration camps.

Afterwards Canada, along with the international community agreed that refugees -- anyone fleeing persecution on the basis of race, religion, political opinion, nationality, membership in a social group -- needed basic minimum standards for protection. Also agreed was that all countries must share the burden of refugee crises.

Fast forward to 2012 Canada and proposed legislation Bill C-31. This Bill is antithetical to the principles of international cooperation, minimal protections, and furthering a "normal and self-respecting life" for refugees. Bill C-31 allows asylum seekers to be detained for one year in a jail or jail-like facilities during which times spouses and children can be separated in violation of other international laws protecting children and family unification.

The bill goes against terms established in the UN 1951 Refugee Convention (later expanded by the 1967 Protocol), like seeking to protect refugees given that they no longer have the "protection and assistance" of the state they are fleeing, and therefore need protection of another state. It also recognized that refugees should not suffer discrimination, be denied freedom of movement or access to justice.

Bill C-31 also imposes a five-year moratorium on seeking permanent residency status for some, imposing a further half-decade of uncertainty and accompanying fear upon individuals who have literally run for their lives. Bill C-31 also creates discrimination among "classes" of refugees. Rather than grant jurdicial rights, Bill C-31 strips many existing rights and creates discriminatory and discretionary practices. We understand the objective to safeguard the refugee process against abuse, but Bill C-31 is more like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

We note too that in language supporting Bill C-31, there seems to be a conflation of the terms "refugee" and "asylum seeker" with "human smuggler" and "human trafficking." One must remember that a refugee is literally running for her life, and trying to find safe haven for herself and her family. The people who exploit the vulnerabilities of refugees, profiting at their expense, and other criminals who engage in human trafficking and enforced slavery such as forced prostitution and labour in foreign lands, should be the targets of punitive legislation.

Bill C-31 does not adequately target human smugglers or traffickers. Bill C-31 punishes refugees and asylum-seekers. In Casablanca, the narrator at the beginning of the film tells us of the "tortuous roundabout refugee trail" that sprang up through Europe across the Mediterranean to Morocco, the embarkation point where refugees turned eyes "hopefully or desperately" towards freedom in the Americas. If Bill C-31 had been in existence, those refugees would not have been looking to Canada -- is that the point?