Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you to discuss Bill , the .
I know we do not have a lot of time today but, since this is my first appearance before the Committee, I would like to take a minute to introduce myself.
I have been a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, the IRB, since 2001. Immediately prior to my appointment to the IRB, I was a member of the Consent and Capacity Board of Ontario. Before that, I was a senior public servant in Ontario, where I served as an Assistant Deputy Attorney General and Executive Lead for Agency Reform. Prior to that, I was Chair of the Rent Review Hearings Board and Acting Mining and Lands Commissioner. I have a Master's degree in Public Law.
Since joining the IRB, I have served in two of the Board's three divisions: first as a member of the Refugee Protection Division, then as Deputy Chairperson of the Immigration Appeal Division. I was appointed Interim Chairperson in March 2007 and I was formally designated in June of that year. I am honoured to be the chairperson of the IRB and to lead such a dedicated group of professionals.
Since its inception 21 years ago, the IRB has gained a reputation--both in Canada and around the world--for its innovative practices, the excellence of its adjudicative support and the high quality of its decisions. In fact, while in Ottawa last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Antonio Guterres, reiterated these sentiments. The IRB has also been recognized by the Federal Court of Canada and by the Auditor General for the thoroughness and professionalism of its training program for new members.
The IRB is Canada's largest administrative tribunal and our members make anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 decisions annually. Our mission under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, as the committee knows, is to resolve immigration and refugee cases efficiently, fairly and in accordance with the law. We fulfill our functions through three divisions: the Immigration Division, the Immigration Appeal Division and the Refugee Protection Division.
While the Board is funded to finalize 25,000 refugee claims a year, as the minister indicated on Tuesday, the number of claims referred to the Board has consistently exceeded our funded rate for the past several years This high intake of refugee claims and an historical shortfall in the member complement have resulted in a large backlog in the Refugee Protection Division. Measures taken by the government last year to slow the intake, along with an increase in withdrawals and abandonments and enhanced productivity at the IRB, have stopped the growth of the backlog, which sat at 59,000 at the end of March 2010. And I am pleased to report that the IRB has recently reduced the backlog by approximately 1,000 cases, although I must stress that significant new resources will be required if the Board is to substantially reduce or eliminate the backlog.
The RPD is currently operating at nearly full capacity. As of today, it is one member short of its funded complement of 127. This is in addition to the 37 GIC appointees in the Immigration Appeal Division and the 30 public servant decision-makers in the Immigration Division.
All of our decision-makers receive extensive upfront training, mentoring and ongoing professional development, legal support, and country-of-origin and claimant specific research.
The work of an IRB member is difficult and demanding. It frequently involves giving testimony regarding torture or human rights abuses, and decisions are life-changing for the refugee claimants and their families. These factors, combined with the volume of work, result in significant pressures on our members.
I am proud of the way that IRB members continue to meet or exceed the expectations set for them. I believe that our success in this regard can be attributed to the practices, procedures and tools we have put in place at each stage of a member's career. It begins with the selection process, is reinforced during the training and integration phase, and continues throughout the entirety of the member's mandate.
Now I'd like to speak specifically about the proposed legislation, Bill . As this committee knows, the IRB has no role in policy-making, as this is the responsibility of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, but I want to assure you that we have been consulted appropriately during the drafting of this legislation on all aspects that affect the mandate of the IRB. I also want to reassure you that the IRB will implement any resulting legislation professionally and effectively.
While we're proud of the work we do as part of the refugee determination system in Canada, the fact is that the public has lost confidence in the refugee system for reasons beyond the control of the IRB. The minister spoke about this on Tuesday.
The current system is in need of reform--the entire system--so that refugee claims can be heard and determined more quickly, and unsuccessful claimants can be removed more quickly, all the while maintaining procedural fairness. is how the government has chosen to seek an improved system.
The main elements of the proposed system that impact refugee determination at the IRB include the requirement that a board employee conduct an information-gathering interview on a date fixed by the referring CBSA or CIC officer, in accordance with the IRB rules to be developed. At this interview, a hearing will be scheduled in accordance with the IRB rules, to be conducted by an RPD public servant decision-maker.
If a refugee claim is rejected by the RPD, all claimants except those from places or classes of nationals designated by the minister would have a right of appeal on the merits on all questions to the IRB's new refugee appeal division, RAD, staffed by Governor in Council appointees. The RAD would receive new evidence and, in certain circumstances, would hold an oral hearing. In the event that a negative RPD decision is upheld on appeal, appellants would have the right to seek leave for judicial review of the appeal decision from the Federal Court. The RAD, in addition to upholding an RPD decision, could substitute its own decision to avoid having it sent back to the RPD, or in rare cases may return the case for a rehearing before a new panel.
Members of the new RPD and the RAD, whether GIC appointees or public servant decision-makers, will be selected through a process that ensures they are suitable and qualified. They will benefit from a similar high level of ongoing training and adjudicative support as is provided to decision-makers at present. I also fully expect that we at the IRB will continue to find creative ways to make the system work in the most efficient way possible.
The IRB will remain steadfast in its commitment to high-quality decision-making and will continue to maintain the high standards we have set for ourselves. Above all, our thoughts are never far from the people whose lives depend on the decisions we make, as well as the safety and security of Canadians.
The IRB will deliver, to the best of its ability, on the requirements of the legislation as determined by Parliament, and we will do so within the timeframes given and within the budget allotted, fulfilling our mandate to resolve cases efficiently, fairly, and in accordance with the law.
In closing, I would like to say to the committee that, as it can appreciate, there are still many questions that need to be answered as we prepare for implementation after royal assent. We will have to develop rules and procedures, develop staffing strategies to meet the new requirements, and determine our fit-up needs, to name just a few.
Now I'd be pleased to do my best to try to answer any of your questions.
Well, it's absolutely critical that this happen: that we select the right people and train them so they're able to discharge their functions competently and in accordance with a code of conduct we have for all our members. That includes our immigration division members.
It starts with selecting the right people. We've talked about that. My view is that we ought to have a mix. It shouldn't be restricted to people at the board or people in the public service, because my experience is that people from outside the public service bring a lot to the board, both when they come as public servants and when they come as GIC appointees.
Honestly, our training at the GIC level is second to none. As I mentioned, I was responsible for agency reform, that is, adjudicated tribunal reform across the Ontario government for the Attorney General. I'm familiar with the training systems of smaller tribunals. We're very fortunate that we're a larger tribunal. We're renowned for our training. If you ask any of our members or former members--and I invite you to do so--they will tell you about the quality of the training.
We will offer the same kind of training to our decision-makers, whether they're public servant decision-makers or GIC decision-makers in RAD. It's fantastic training, it really is. It includes mentoring. No one is permitted to sit as a sole decision-maker given the importance of the decisions they make until we determine that they're ready to do so, and of course, until they believe they're ready to do so.
There will then be monitoring to ensure they're carrying out their responsibilities effectively and in accordance with the law. We do that currently for the GIC decision-makers and for the public servant decision-makers in the ID. That includes sitting in on hearings, reviewing tapes or discs of hearings, and reviewing reasons. That's done as part of our performance evaluation system.
Once again, we have annual performance evaluations for both public servants and for GIC decision-makers. Of course, we have an end-of-mandate performance evaluation for all GIC appointees that is sent to the minister at least six months in advance of the expiry of a member's term. On that basis, I make a recommendation to the minister as to whether or not someone should be reappointed.
Public servant decision-makers are generally indeterminate appointments, so they're not appointed for a term. If they're not performing according to expectations, we'll find out why. We'll see what we need to do to help them and, if they're not measuring up, then they won't sit on claims. It's as simple as that. It's too important.
I'll just say one word about the first question, though. I think you can appreciate that, once again, we do not make government policy. It's CIC and the government that make government policy. So my views as to whether the policies are the right ones or not are not germane. It's important to know that. But we are consulted, as I say, about what the impact of any particular provision would be on the board. I won't repeat that, because I've already said that.
In terms of the challenges, I think the challenges will be, first of all, to get the right people in the right places for the right time. We must succeed in developing a high-quality first-level decision-making body in the public service in the board. We must.
Because that has been a problem with other countries like Great Britain, where the first-level decision-makers stay for about a year, in most cases--I was there. They're very young. Their decisions are not very professional in the sense that there is a very high overturn rate. More than 20% of the decisions are overturned on appeal.
Now, to give you an idea, while I realize that judicial review is not an appeal, our success rate on judicial review is that only 0.05%, half a per cent, of the decisions of the IRB in any year are overturned on judicial review--one half of one per cent.
--I'm sorry that I don't have speaking notes to hand out now, but I can hand them out tomorrow if you wish.
Just briefly, regarding my background, in addition to being a senior immigration and refugee lawyer in Ottawa with a vast refugee practice as well as an immigration practice, I am a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board.
I think it's also important to understand my personal background. I am a child of Holocaust survivors. We came from eastern Europe in 1949 before the international convention on refugees was implemented in 1951, so I've had a personal and very moving experience with the issue of refugees and their not being accepted in a time of need during World War II. When I look at this whole issue of reform of the refugee system, I see it from a personal perspective, that is, from my life experience as well as from a professional perspective.
I would like to add that before I became a lawyer—before I went to law school at the age of 40—I was a high school teacher in the French public board, where I taught predominantly in schools that had a majority of refugees in their student population.
I would like to start by saying that I have to commend the government, that I praise the government, for its efforts with its legislation to streamline the refugee determination process. It is a step in the right direction, and I applaud Mr. Kenney for his efforts. I don't think it has gone far enough, but it is a first step in the right direction.
It is very difficult for anybody to actually admit that the current system is working; I think we can all agree that taking 19 months before having a hearing and five years to get rid of failed refugee claimants is excessive and unacceptable. What also cannot be contested is that there is a lot of abuse in the refugee system. I see it on a regular basis. I do not accept all of the clients who come to me to make refugee claims when I am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that they are not genuine refugees.
So when I speak of cases, I don't speak from an academic point of view, or a theoretical point of view, or even a political point of view. I speak...[Technical Difficulty--Editor]
So I speak from hands-on experience. I am not talking for political motives.
I will give you a most recent example. This happens on a regular basis. I got a call last week from a gentleman, an Armenian in the United States, who's there on an ESL visa, either to study or to teach. I wasn't quite sure. He said that he wanted to make a refugee claim and he was there legally with his family in the United States. I said, “Well, make a claim in the United States”. According to the international convention of 1951, a genuine refugee will make a claim in the first safe country he arrives in.
He told me that he knew he had a good claim because he had consulted with an immigration lawyer in the United States and was told that he had a good claim. I said, “Well, then, make your claim”. He said, “But no, here in the United States, I have to pay for a lawyer, I have to pay to live somewhere, and I have to support my family”. He said, “I want to come to Canada because I know I can get a free lawyer and free housing, and if I want to get a work permit, I can get one”. I said, “Well, I'm sorry, but I can't help you”.
This was not an exceptional call that I got. This is a run-of-the-mill call.
I should also advise you that I am duty counsel for the legal aid panel of refugees and immigrants. Every other week on Monday afternoons I go to OCISO, the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, on Wellington. I have hands-on experience with what's going on in the community. Through my consultations with people who come to OCISO, I see that many are attempting to use the refugee determination process as a back door to immigrating to Canada.
People come to me and say they want to sponsor their parents who are here as visitors. I tell them to start the sponsorship. They're very open because they know there's client-solicitor privilege and I'm not identifying anybody. They'll say, “Well, we were told” by one of the settler workers, “that my parents should just make refugee claims and then we don't have to sponsor them and they can stay here”. Then they won't have this 10-year obligation; they're very open about it. I tell them, “Well, I'm sorry, but I'm not here to give you that kind of advice, and I really can't help you”.
This is not unusual. We do have to tighten up the system. We have to make sure that the refugee determination process is used for legitimate refugees and is not hijacked by those who want to immigrate another way and those who want to avoid financial obligations for their parents or grandparents. That is not what it's for. And we have to respect that genuine refugees are made to wait far too long to get their status determined because of a significant portion of applicants--claimants--who are not genuine.
As for the safe country of origin, I'm an advocate for this, because I cannot understand why we would even look at or consider a case from any of the European Union countries. Any citizen of any one of those 27 countries has the right to work and live in one of the other 26 countries--not to make a refugee claim, but to work and live. So I cannot quite understand why they would come here, unless I were to be facetious and say that in the other 26 countries they have the right to live and work, whereas in Canada they have the right to live, make a claim, and not work. Maybe I am being facetious, but we have to take this into consideration.
I can't understand why we would accept claims from the United States, Australia, or New Zealand. They are democratic countries. We are not the only democracy in the world; we are not necessarily the best. I don't think anybody could argue about New Zealand, Switzerland, or most of the EU countries. Those are safe countries of origin and have to be respected.
We cannot let people from those nationalities who come from those countries abuse our system here. We have to focus on genuine refugees. We have to focus on having non-genuine refugees or failed claimants removed from our country, or those who have come in and lied and may happen to be criminals, terrorists, or persecutors--like from Rwanda.
I think of the case of Mugesera. It's one of the most infamous cases we have. In 2005 the Supreme Court of Canada deemed that Leon Mugesera, exiled ethnic Hutu hard-liner, was a war criminal, and ordered him deported for helping incite the genocide we all know about that occurred in Rwanda. He was a failed refugee claimant from 1995. It's now 2010 and he is still here, appeal after appeal. That is not what the refugee process is for.
Then we have another one from 1987: Mahmoud Mohammad Issa Mohammad. He's a Palestinian terrorist who received a 17-year sentence from a Greek court for an attack on an El Al airline in Athens in which a passenger was killed. He entered as a landed immigrant by using a false identity. He has managed to avoid deportation to this day even though he was ordered deported. I believe his latest appeal is on health reasons: that he cannot get the same level of health care back in the West Bank that he can here.
I have a whole list, but I won't go through it. I'll be happy to include it in my speaking notes.
So yes, the government is going in the right direction. I believe it's only a first step. More reform is needed to tighten up the refugee process and make it more efficient and effective for genuine refugees--not for bogus claimants.
First of all, thank you very much for inviting me to speak before the committee.
Before making my comments on Bill , may I say that I share with other Canadians the belief that Canada should give protection to a reasonable number of genuine refugees? I would add that some of my own family members, my in-laws, were boat people who fled from an oppressive regime. I got interested in these issues when I served as ambassador or high commissioner in various countries in Asia and the Middle East, where there were large flows of refugee claimants as well as immigrants in general.
We have to acknowledge, though, that despite public support for a good refugee system, there are major problems with the current system. The public is concerned about this and there is strong public support for reforms to the system, both to speed up the process for cases that have merit as well as finalize decisions and arrange for the speedy removal of the large numbers of claimants who are not considered to need our protection.
It's abundantly clear that a very large number of the people who make refugee claims in Canada are not fleeing persecution, but are, rather, abusing the system simply to gain permanent residence in this country, in most cases for economic reasons. Even though Canada is one of the most difficult refugee-receiving countries for asylum seekers or refugee claimants to reach because of its geographical location, we nevertheless receive a very substantial proportion of the claims made globally because we have the most generous system of benefits for claimants and, on average, we approve three times as many claims as other countries do.
In 2009, for example, we received over 33,000 new refugee claims. The UNHCR made a survey of 44 industrialized countries. Out of those 44, we ranked behind only the United States and France in absolute number of claims. Both of those countries have significantly larger populations and are much more geographically accessible to most asylum seekers.
In the time allotted to me, I'm going to concentrate my remarks on the provisions of Bill that deal with what are described as designated countries of origin, which are widely referred to internationally as safe countries of origin.
If members of the committee wish, I'll also try to answer questions on other aspects of Bill C-11, such as the use of public servants in the first or initial decision level of the determination process.
The term “safe countries of origin” is used to describe countries that are democratic, have a good human rights record, subscribe to the UN conventions on human rights and refugees, and are considered not to persecute their citizens. Many refugee-receiving countries won't even consider a claim from a national of a safe country of origin, or they at least have in place a system for dealing quickly with such claims so they don't clog the system and these countries can concentrate on claims that have merit.
Canada, however, until now, has been practising no such restraint and has allowed people to make claims who are nationals of a host of countries that would not seriously be regarded elsewhere as refugee producing, that is, that persecute their citizens as defined in the UN convention.
In 2008, for example, we allowed claimants into our refugee determining system who were Norwegians, New Zealanders, Australians, Germans, French, British, and American, and the list goes on. While the number of nationals from most of the countries I just mentioned was in most cases relatively small, some were not. In 2008, for example, more than 2,300 U.S. citizens made refugee claims in Canada. That's not an insignificant number when it comes to the time and resources required to deal with their claims.
Perhaps more noteworthy, however, are the sudden increases that have occurred in a number of claimants from specific countries, many of which would be considered by other refugee-receiving countries as safe. Most recently, these have involved claimants from Mexico, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, but there were similar occurrences going back decades and involving people from Portugal, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Argentina, and Chile, etc.
This type of problem has arisen in part because of the way we've stretched the definition of persecution in the UN convention. Ironically, Canada some years ago warned the international community at a UNHCR meeting in Geneva that if the refugee definition is drawn too broadly, we risk defining the problem into complete unmanageableness, and that is what has happened, to a large extent.
The Canadian representative at that particular meeting went on to make the point that it was particularly unfair that we spend thousands of dollars each on individuals who manage to reach our territory whether or not they are deserving of our help, yet relatively little on those languishing in refugee camps.
In the case of the spike in claims last year by people from the Czech Republic, the argument was made by refugee advocates that although members of the community from which most of them came, that is, the Roma--or as they are sometimes called, the gypsies--weren't being persecuted by the Czech government, the fact that the latter could not prevent members of the population in general from discriminating against the Roma was the equivalent of persecution and, therefore, they should be eligible to make refugee claims. Under this expanded definition of persecution, we would be obliged to accept, for example, applications from the more than 100 million of the Dalit, or untouchable caste, in India.
Clearly, the refugee convention was never intended to deal with this kind of problem, and if the convention is to be applied in a realistic and practical manner, it cannot be interpreted in a way that results in us being expected to solve other people's social problems by moving all of their people in difficult circumstances to Canada. It's worth noting in this regard that the other members of the European Union will not consider a refugee claim from a Czech national, Roma or otherwise, since the Czech Republic is a democratic country with a good human rights record.
In the circumstances, it is quite appropriate that Canada establish a list of designated countries of origin, particularly in cases where there are rapid increases in claims from nationals of countries that do not persecute their citizens. In my view, the answer is clearly yes: we should establish such a system.
Until now, we've been reduced to imposing visitor visa requirements in such cases. This is a very awkward way of dealing with such situations and it usually brings with it a number of negative consequences, including adverse reactions from the countries affected, and it might include retaliatory impositions of visa requirements on Canadian travellers.
A further negative consequence of the ease with which virtually any non-Canadian can make a refugee claim in Canada is the extreme caution we often have to exercise in issuing visitor visas to nationals of many countries. When I was working at various Canadian embassies overseas, we frequently had to turn down visitor visa applications from people who were probably bona fide visitors but who we could not take a chance on because it was so easy for them to claim refugee status once they arrived in Canada. If we had a more sensible refugee determination system, we would not have to turn down as many visitor visa applications as we do now.
Now, will the provisions for designating countries of origin in the proposed legislation work effectively if indeed they're approved and implemented? That remains to be seen.
People from countries so designated will still be allowed to make refugee claims but will not be able to lodge an appeal with the refugee appeal division if their claim has been turned down. The expectation, presumably, is that this restriction will deter most such individuals from making claims in the first place. But should this not turn out to be the case, should it not be a significant deterrent, the government would be well advised to consider firmer measures to control the unjustified spikes from nationals of those countries of origin.
We may have to simply refuse to process applications from such individuals.
In conclusion, I'd like to point out Canada is more than generous in terms of its refugee policy. As I mentioned already, we have the most generous system of benefits in the world, as well as one of the highest rates of acceptance, and this is a major reason why we attract so many claimants.
We also are well above average in terms of refugee claimants approved as well as refugees resettled from abroad. Despite this, the refugee advocacy groups, such as the Canadian Council for Refugees, keep claiming that Canada is far from generous and that the new legislation would make the situation even worse.
This is simply not true. We need to keep the system fair and efficient; Canadians want this. Those who argue that we should open our doors even wider are simply not in touch with public opinion.
I commend the government for making these proposals. I might mention that I, like Julie Taub, am non-political. I'm not a member of any political party and I'm quite happy to brief members of any party on some of the issues of both immigration policy and refugee policy, if they're interested.
I thank you again for inviting me to speak today. I'll conclude my remarks.
Mr. Collacott said that, in his experience, some of the visitors who would like to come to Canada didn't get approved even though they probably had really legitimate reasons to come to visit their loved ones in Canada, because there was the fear that they would claim refugee status in Canada. Unfortunately, as a result of that, whether it was a legitimate reason—a wedding, a funeral, or a birth of a grandchild—those people couldn't come to Canada because there was a fear they would stay and submit a refugee claim.
I just want to say that, really, that's not a good reason to turn down a visitor, because most visitors are here to celebrate some special event rather than wanting to claim refugee status. Some countries end up having visitor visas being turned down at the rate of 30% or 40% at some visa offices.
I also heard Mr. Collacott say that Mexico would be a safe country.
Rather than talking about Turkey, you were trying to say Mexico is a safe country, but what I have found is that a large number of refugee claims are being supported by the Immigration and Refugee Board because they are legitimate, in that they were fearing drug lords, they were fearing domestic violence, etc.
So I think it is very difficult for us, or for the minister, for that matter, or for anyone, to say which country would be a safe place. Because it seems to me, and according to people who are involved in human rights, you really can't say that a country is safe or not safe. It's the individual case....
My question is for Ms. Taub. What do you think should be the number of refugees we should admit into Canada each year? If you were to be immigration minister tomorrow, how many refugees should we accept within Canada?
Yes, of course, I would have several recommendations to improve it. One would be to deal with this issue of consultants. Victims spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on false promises and they get nowhere. That has always been a festering issue.
But I am not proposing that this bill not be passed because there's not enough.... But you're asking me for my opinion for improvements in general in the refugee system.
Hon. Maurizio Bevilacqua: That's right.
Ms. Julie Taub: I would also recommend looking into—I may be slightly off topic—the resettlement program. I have had clients who have come to me from Rwanda. I have had clients who have come to me from Afghanistan. They've come in through a resettlement program. They have said that while they greatly appreciate that the Government of Canada has resettled them as refugees in this country, why did it allow their persecutors, their murderers and their killers to come in with them? There is not enough research. Backgrounds are not looked into enough.
I had one such client this afternoon before I came here. She's a wonderful woman from Afghanistan. She and her siblings were accepted in 2006. They came in from Kyrgyzstan, where they had been resettled as refugees. When they came in, she recognized many members and supporters of the Taliban. She asked, “How is this possible?”
I don't know how it's possible, but it's not the first time I've heard of such a thing. If there can be an improvement for refugee determination, it is to look into the background of refugee claimants or those who are resettled, to look more thoroughly to see what their affiliation is so the murderers and the persecutors don't come to Canada with their victims.