By Heddie Driegen, Refugee Coordinator (Emmanuel Free Reformed Refugee Sponsorship Program):
Update: Bill C-11 passed 2nd reading vote on April 29. Please direct feedback to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.
Canada has been a welcome haven for those in distress around the world, a record we can be proud of and must sustain. Giving protection to refugees is a key part of Canada’s humanitarian tradition, and the Conservative government wants to build on that (but) at the same time fix some very serious problems in Canada’s asylum system. Previous Liberal and Conservative governments, sensitive to the plight of so many, have tried and failed to implement refugee reforms.
While there has been recognition that Canada’s refugee system needs reform, there has always been difficult to find consensus amongst the various stakeholders over what changes need to be brought in.
The Immigration Minister, Mr Jason Kenny introduced Bill C-11 in the House of Commons on March 30. This bill outlines the government’s refugee reforms which, if implemented would:
1. provide faster protection for refugee claimants
2. settle more people to Canada from various United Nations recognized refugee camps
3. make the process more fair to immigrants, who find their cases delayed by people who file
false refugee claims in an attempt to jump the immigration cue.
There are two kinds of refugees. The first are people who live in refugee camps and are victims of war, ethnic cleansing or persecution and can’t return home. According to Minister Kenny, one of every 10 people relocated from these camps come to Canada, the reforms propose to increase that number by 20%.
The proposed reform would allow an additional 2500 people to be accepted as Permanent Residents to Canada each year. The top end of the target range for private sponsors would be increased from 3400 to 5400 people and the top end of the range for government sponsorships would be increased from 7500 to 8000 people.
In a world where more than 10 million refugees remain stuck in unsafe and desperate circumstances awaiting safe asylum, the legislative reforms are an improvement. Emmanuel Free Reformed Refugee Sponsorship Program certainly applauds the increased targets and looks forward to the implementation of Bill C-11.
The second kind of refugee, are people who come to Canada as refugee claimants seeking asylum. As a consequence of a Supreme Court ruling which said the word “persons” in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applied to anyone who set foot on Canadian soil; refugee claimants have the same right to oral hearings, with all the legal protections that flowed from those hearings as Canadians or people legitimately in Canada.
Currently, claimants face a gruelling process to get their claims approved or denied. Getting a hearing can take up to 19 months and the full process could take years by the time all administrative appeals have been heard. Due to this cumbersome process they can often stay for four or five years or longer, before they’ve exhausted all appeals and are removed from the country; the government estimates there are 60,000 people currently waiting for a decision or removal.
Bill C-11 proposes that all refugee claimants in Canada be given a quick hearing before a single decision-maker. The claimants would meet with an official within eight days to explain the basis of their claim. The official would only gather information and set a hearing date which would usually take place within 60 days.
Of concern is the statement that hearings will be held within 60 days. Given the volume of claims, a more realistic target might be 120 days. While setting firm time frames is laudable, it is important that they are realistic and allow for some latitude when claimants have legitimate reasons for seeking more time before their case is heard.
What is essential is that the government ensure that the Immigration and Refugee Board has the necessary resources to make the system work efficiently and to tackle the backlog of claims that the new system will inherit. Failure to do so in the past has doomed previous efforts to failure.
The new legislation finally creates a new appeal on the merits before the Refugee Appeal Division. This appeal is one that has long been sought by refugee advocates and lawyers. Given the importance of the outcome to the person involved, the decision to create the new appeal is certainly a positive development.
However, the legislation also gives the minister the power to create a list of so-called “safe countries of origin.” If a claimant is a national of a country on this list, he would not have the same right to appeal that others will now get. This provision is problematic because a country may be safe for most people but not for others. Indeed, if the reforms are successful in creating a fair and efficient decision-making process, then this power will not be needed.
Moreover, as recent history has taught us, such a list could become highly politicized. Most would agree that, given the current carnage in Mexico as a result of the drug wars, it is not “safe.” But if Mexico is not included on a list of safe countries, will this not cause tension with our NAFTA partner?
The real secret of an effective system is that fast and fair are not opposites, they are complementary. The government appears to understand this principle. Apart from granting more time before the first hearing,( increased from 60 to 120 days) this proposed system will work as long as it is fairly and reasonably implemented.
These changes will cost Ottawa and the Canadian taxpayer $541 million over five years; to fix a broken refugee determination system that’s taking a big toll, both in human and economic terms. The Conservatives had a responsibility to take action on a file that has languished for far too long, unfairly punishing legitimate refugees.
It may be that Mr. Kenny is overreaching with some provisions and has too-great expectations for others meant to speed up things; but with some’ tweaking’ these reforms can form the basis for an improved refugee determination system.
Bringing additional refugees from overseas, while slightly tightening the criteria for those who make claims in Canada seems an appropriate. Please contact your MP and let him know your views on this important reform package.