Professor Nhung Tran op-ed in Toronto Star: How Canadians can help children horrifically detained in US — and Canada

June 25, 2018 by Department of History Staff

Like so many of my fellow Canadians, I have been horrified by how the United States Department of Homeland Security has separated at least 2,000 children from their families since April 19.

We have seen the dehumanization of these children as they cower in cages facing wall-sized murals of the president’s face, bear arms with identification numbers written in lieu of personal names, and have heard their cries while border officials crack jokes about them.

These migrants have risked their lives as they walked toward the U.S. border, seeking refuge from violence and extreme poverty only to have the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world deny them basic human dignity.

It is easy to think we can relax on our summer patios, congratulate ourselves on being compassionate, enlightened Canadians rather than cruel Americans, but that would ignore both broader truths and opportunities where Canada could make a positive difference for these (and similar) refugees, but has not.

According to a study by Hannah Gros, a senior fellow at the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, the Canadian Borders and Customs Patrol detained more than 200 children between 2011 and 2015, 85 per cent of whom were under the age of six, and many as young as two. As we look with horror at the detention and separation of families in the United States, we must shine a light on our own policies.

In the last two years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau inspired the world with compassionate words and carefully curated photos welcoming refugees while his government closes avenues through which they can seek help.

He has also quietly shut down the private sponsorship program, warned refugees not to enter Canada “irregularly,” and he refuses to revisit the Safe Third Country Agreement.

This pact between Canada and the U.S. requires that refugee claimants make asylum applications in the country in which they first set foot, effectively allowing Canada to turn away refugees who entered through the U.S. first. The agreement made sense when both the United States and Canada shared similar policies toward the treatment of refugees, but endangers lives as those who could be offered safe haven are turned away at border crossing points.

All those who have been appalled by the images and sounds they heard of crying children on the U.S.-Mexican border should call for the prime minister to address the detention of young children and the separation of families in Canada. At the same time, Canada could hold itself up as a country whose ideals enable it to be a beacon of hope for those in distress.

The government of Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, changed immigration policy so 40,000 men, mostly of white, educated backgrounds, could avoid the U.S. military draft by immigrating and settling in Canada. Were these young men any more at risk than the poor children who are fleeing one nightmare only to be put in detention and separated from their parents?

On World Refugee Day, I ask Prime Minister Trudeau and my fellow Canadians whether the lives of black and brown bodies seeking refuge from war, dehumanization, and state-sponsored violence south of the border and in our own country are as important those of the young men who sought safe haven a generation ago?

If the answer is yes, then we must end the detention of children at immigration holding centres in Canada, rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement, and revisit the government’s resettlement policies, which often leave the most vulnerable refugees behind.

This is a non-partisan issue, but if Trudeau refuses to do so, perhaps it is time for courageous members of Parliament from his own party to take a stand. The world is watching and history will judge how we act in response to this humanitarian crisis, not by our words alone.

How Canadians can help children horrifically detained in U.S. — and Canada

Interview with Professor Tran on CBC Radio's Here and Now, about her op-ed