Cynthia Wright/Salim Vally
THE case of Brandon Huntley, the white South African recently granted refugee status in Canada, has stirred much debate about the politics of racism, persecution and refuge in both Canada and South Africa.
“That a Canadian court could take this seriously boggles the mind,” South African commentators Herman Wasserman and Sean Jacobs write of Huntley’s claim in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.
Their probing article situates for Canadian readers the South African context of Huntley’s case. They contrast his mobility and ability to find refuge with the fate of Skhumbuzo Douglas Mhlongo, who tragically killed himself after frustrating and futile attempts to obtain an identity document from callous officials.
A reading of the Canadian context suggests still another set of contrasts and divides, and some disturbing directions in Canadian immigration, refugee, citizenship and foreign policy — a far cry from a previous era that prompted some South African exiles to dub Toronto “a place to run to”.
For one, Huntley’s case makes a striking counterpart to that of Suaad Hagi Muhamud, a Canadian citizen whose sorry saga when she visited Kenya was also prominently featured in the Canadian media recently.
Her identity was questioned by Kenyan authorities on the basis of the size of her lips as they scrutinised her passport photo. The Canadian High Commissioner’s office in Nairobi, without evidence or investigation, continued the humiliating treatment by concurring with the Kenyan authorities that Muhamud was an imposter and annulled her passport.
After a nightmarish bureaucratic run-around, Muhamud was allowed to return to Canada late last month — having endured almost three months in limbo in Kenya, eight days in jail and enforced DNA testing, which only confirmed her identity and her Canadian citizenship. Muhamud’s case can also be compared with that of Brenda Martin, a white Canadian citizen who was whisked back to Canada on a private plane after problems in Mexico.
Indeed, there have been a number of high-profile cases of Canadian citizens in trouble — almost all of them people of colour abandoned abroad. Most famously, Maher Arar was seized by the United States with Canadian complicity and, through the notorious “rendition” process, spirited clandestinely to a secret detention facility in Syria where he was tortured. Arar was eventually the focus of a remarkable public inquiry, government apology and settlement. Such cases have encouraged an anxious Canadian national conversation about racism, immigration and citizenship.
Undaunted by these human rights violations, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper encouraged the imposition, two months ago, of stringent visa requirements on Mexican and Czech nationals (the latter aimed at Roma people) on the grounds that they are the producers of bogus refugee claims. Huntley’s case thus also contrasts sharply with Mexican refugee claimants — victims of police brutality and/or of extreme gender and homophobic violence — who have been told to relocate within Mexico to safer communities rather than settling in Canada.
The Huntley case should also be contextualised. The conservative Canadian government aggressively supported the Bush administration’s wars despite profound dissatisfaction among Canadian citizens. In addition, the Canadian government was the first, after Israel, to boycott the United Nations’s Durban Review Racism Conference recently held in Geneva. This decision was made without consulting organisations representing people in Canada most affected by racism, such as immigrants and indigenous people.
These communities have decided nonetheless to act on racism despite their government’s abdication. The Canadian Arab Federation (CAF), which provides services and advocacy for a large number of immigrants, has found its funding cut on the grounds that the CAF is “anti-Semitic” because of its support for Palestinian rights and criticism of Israeli state policies.
But the CAF’s record in fighting all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, is impeccable — attested to by many community organisations, including progressive Jewish groups — and the government’s punitive action is being challenged in the courts.
Other areas of comparison also exist. Huntley is, reportedly, an “illegal”, having overstayed his worker’s permit. Besides Huntley, the detention and deportation of “illegal” workers, overwhelmingly people of colour, appear to be increasing — as is the organising to stop such removals. Meanwhile, the numbers of those coming on temporary worker permits — permits offering few or no pathways to permanent residence in Canada — continue to grow exponentially and now exceed those entering as permanent residents.
In the context of such restructuring of Canadian citizenship, immigration and refugee politics, one can ask: would Huntley have been granted refugee status had he not been white? Some of the discussion around Huntley’s case suggests what Australian sociologist Ghassan Hage calls “fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural nation” — except that we are also seeing the anxious reassertion of the whiteness of Canadian citizenship through moves that produce stratified labour, civil and political rights for everyone else.
And although editors and mainstream pundits in Canada and South Africa want to debate the distinction between the “bogus” and “real” refugees in this case, the actual debate needs to be about a system of global capital that increasingly operates by constraining the movement of workers, the better to secure their exploitation.
French academic Étienne Balibar, highly influenced by the campaigns of the sans papiers, calls the contemporary geography of migration control “global apartheid”. For the majority of the world’s poor, their countries provide no real refuge from poverty, discrimination or exploitation. And the refugee systems of the global north, including Canada, are increasingly restrictive.
A transnational, multilevel political fight for the right of free movement for all (not just the wealthy or the white, not just for capital but also for workers) — and linked to social, labour and political rights of all regardless of citizenship status — can provide a way to reframe this debate.
• Dr Cynthia Wright teaches at York University, Toronto,. Salim Vally is a member of the South African Association of Canadian Studies, was a visiting lecturer at York University last year and is now based at the University of Johannesburg.
• We regret we are unable to bring you Zama-Zama files this week. — Editor.