moved that Bill , be read the second time and referred to a committee.
He said: Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise here today to speak to .
This bill and related reforms would reinforce Canada's humanitarian tradition as a place of refuge for victims of persecution and torture, while improving our asylum system to ensure that it is balanced, fast and fair. The bill would ensure faster protection of bona fide refugees, reinforce procedural fairness by implementing a robust refugee appeals division at the IRB and ensure faster removal of those who seek to abuse Canada's generosity by making asylum claims.
Canada has always been a place of refuge for victims of persecution, warfare and oppression. English Canada was founded by refugees fleeing the American revolution, the United Empire Loyalists. Canada was the north star of the underground railroad for escaped slaves from the southern United States.
In 1956, Canada welcomed some 40,000 refugees of Soviet communism fleeing the invasion of Budapest. In 1979 and 1980, Canadian churches and families welcomed some 50,000 Vietnamese or Indochinese boat people, creating the magnificent foundations of our privately sponsored refugee program.
Having said that, there have been moments when we turned our backs on those most urgently in need of our help. We think, of course, of the example of the European Jewish refugees during the second world war who Canada refused to accept, detailed in the great historical work None is Too Many written by Harold Troper and Irving Abella.
We must learn from the mistakes of that period so that we never repeat them. I believe we have learned from those mistakes, because Canada has welcomed some one million refugees to make a new start here in Canada in security and with our protection since the second world war.
There remain an estimated 10.5 million refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, around the world. Every year, some 20 developed democracies resettle about 100,000 refugees, and from that number Canada annually resettles between 10,000 and 12,000 or 1 out of every 10 refugees resettled globally, second only to the United States with 10 times our population.
The government is also active with our international partners to help those in need. Take, for example, the government's commitment to resettle up to 5,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal over several years. We have already welcomed more than 850 Bhutanese refugees in several communities across Canada. In addition, we have also completed the resettlement of more than 3,900 Karens from Thailand.
I was very proud last year to announce a special program to welcome to Canada over the course of three years some 12,000 refugees from the conflict in Iraq. I visited some of these families in Damascus, Syria, last May and I must say I still remain touched and deeply moved after hearing their stories of violence and persecution, often on religious grounds.
Everywhere I go across the country, I encourage community groups, church groups, faith groups and others to participate in our privately-sponsored refugee program to help rescue those Iraqi refugees and other people in need of our support around the world.
In addition to all those things, we have increased our support for the UNHCR in its important work to help displaced populations on the ground. In fact, to quote Abraham Abraham, the UNHCR representative to Canada, “Canada, a major settlement country and a major donor to UNHCR activities worldwide, has for the time in its funding of UNHCR's global operations worldwide reached a new level of over $51 million, making this the highest ever annual Canadian grant to the UN refugee agency”.
I am proud that happened under this government.
In spite of our many achievements, I believe that in the context of balanced reform to our refugee system, Canada can and should do more to help those in need of our protection. That is why, as part of this broader package of reform to our refugee systems, including our asylum system, I have announced our intention to increase the number of resettled refugees welcomed to Canada by 2,500 individuals, to 14,000. We would continue to lead the world and set an example for other countries.
I propose, in the context of refugee reform, that we increase by some 20% or $9 million the refugee assistance program to provide initial assistance for the successful integration of government-assisted refugees typically coming from UN camps. I have also announced, as part of these increases and targets, an increase of some 2,000 positions for people to come through the very effective, privately sponsored refugee program.
Bizarrely, these huge increases in Canada's generosity that I announced were criticized by one individual claiming to speak on behalf of refugee organizations, demonstrating that there are some in this debate who are neither objective nor balanced in their approach. However, I must say that I was gratified to see the overwhelmingly positive response from those who actually work with refugees, not just issue press releases but actually do the practical work with people who need a new start.
For example, Mr. Abraham of the UNHCR said, “This is an encouraging move in the right direction that yet again demonstrates the humanitarian commitment of Canada to provide protection to needy refugees for whom resettlement is the only solution enabling them to rebuild their shattered lives with respect and dignity”.
Mr. Tsehai of Canadian Lutheran World Relief expressed his “sincere appreciation and deep gratitude for your announcement to increase the PSR target to a 6,500 annual level”.
A coalition of sponsorship agreement holders, groups that bring the refugees to Canada, said they were “thrilled with the news”.
There can be no doubt that this government is committed to continuing Canada's proud humanitarian tradition of protecting those in need, but let me turn my attention to the asylum system.
We also have, as all members will know, a very robust, highly regarded and extraordinarily fair charter-compliant legal system for the consideration of asylum claims made by refugee claimants arriving in Canada. Unfortunately the system has many serious, longstanding problems and everyone knows it.
I would like to credit the member for , the official opposition immigration critic, for having raised this issue as early as 18 months ago and doing so in a non-partisan fashion. I would also like to commend the for having pointed to the problems in our asylum system, which must be addressed.
One of the problems is that we have had long, very large backlogs in asylum claims as a permanent feature of the system. The average size of the asylum backlog in our system over the past 10 or 15 years has been 40,000 people waiting for a hearing on their applications for asylum protection in Canada. That means that, typically, people have been waiting about a year to get even a hearing. Right now the backlog is as high as 60,000 people waiting for a decision or a hearing on their applications, meaning that people have to wait 19 months for a hearing. This is not acceptable. We must do better.
If someone manages to escape one of Ahmadinejad's prisons in Iran and he arrives at one of our airports with the scars of torture fresh on his back, we do not offer him a quick pathway to security and protection in Canada. We give him a form and say we will check back with him in 19 months.
That is not good enough. Frankly, those who defend the status quo, who say that these permanent, huge backlogs and the large number of false claims, which contribute enormously to those backlogs, are acceptable, have taken the wrong position with respect to our moral obligation to provide speedy protection to those in need of it.
The truth is this. Too many people try to use our asylum system as a back door to gain entry into Canada, rather than wait patiently to come here through the immigration process. The result is that too many people abuse our system in an effort to jump the immigration queue. There are a number of problems with the current system, which encourage unfounded claims.
How do I make this assessment that there are many unfounded claims? In the last two years, we have seen that some 58% of the claims for asylum made in Canada were subsequently deemed to be unfounded or not in need of our protection. Many of those claims are actually withdrawn by the claimants. I will give one example.
I suspect if we went to any of our constituencies and asked people what they think is the most likely source of refugee claims in Canada, they might say Iran, North Korea, Somalia or Iraq. In point of fact, it is an EU democracy, Hungary. Last year, there were 2,500 claims. Subsequently, 97% of claimants from that European democracy went on to withdraw or abandon their own claims, indicating to us that they do not need our protection. Why they came and went through the asylum system is a good question. A clue may be found in a criminal investigation into allegations of human trafficking involving many of these claimants who are being victimized, allegedly, by a human trafficking ring.
However, of the 2,500 claims made from that EU democracy, only 3 claims were found to be in need of our protection. Therefore, with six out of ten claims being made, which were subsequently found not to be in need of Canada's protection, and with Canada receiving one of the highest levels of asylum claims in the world with a 60% increase in the number of claims filed between 2006 and 2008, all of this to me indicates that Canada has become, regrettably, a country of choice for those who seek to migrate, not through the normal legal system, but by inventing claims often facilitated by unscrupulous agents and third parties in the immigration industry.
These problems are serious. Even the Auditor General has pointed to the backlogs creating this pull factor for false claims. What we seek to do in these reforms is to create and reinforce balance that respects our obligation to provide due process that is compliant with the charter and with the United Nations conventions on torture and refugees to asylum claimants, balance that does not restrict access to the asylum system for those who believe they have a need for our protection but balance that will provide faster protection decisions for legitimate refugees while providing faster removals for the many who actually come here seeking to abuse Canada's generosity.
How do we propose to do that? First, there would be an initial information gathering interview that would provide earlier contact with an officer from the IRB than claimants now have. Although these officers would not decide on claims, they would be able to identify claims that appear well founded and could recommend expedited processing for them. What this means for people who have managed to escape persecution is that they would not have to wait a year and a half for protection but could receive it in a matter of weeks.
I understand that some claimants may be too traumatized to explain what prompted their claim. That is why during an interview if the officer determines that a claimant is in this situation, he or she could have the discretion to postpone the interview until the claimant could receive the appropriate guidance and support.
The information that officers would gather, coupled with solid facts about the nature of their claim, would lead to hearings at the refugee protection division, staffed by a highly trained, independent public servant, within 60 days. In cases where there is a good reason for delay, there would be that flexibility, but an information gathering interview within eight days and a hearing at the IRB within sixty days would be the norm.
The proposed new system would also include, and this is very important, a full appeal for most claimants. Unlike the appeal process proposed in the past and the one dormant in our current legislation, this refugee appeal division, or RAD, would allow for the introduction of new evidence and, in certain circumstances, provide for an oral hearing.
By the way, that is responding to a demand from some of the opposition parties for a very long time. I should point out that when the Liberal government was in office, three subsequent immigration ministers and the government took the position that they could not implement the RAD until there was a streamlining of the overall asylum system. We are now providing that streamlining. It is time to say yes to the appeal division in the context of a more efficient but still fair system.
I will now turn my attention to one of the more contentious aspects of the legislation, which would be to allow for the designation of certain countries as being safe. The nationals from those countries, under these reforms, would still, and I emphasize still, have the same access they currently do to our asylum system. They would still have access to an appeal by our independent judiciary at the Federal Court. They would still have access to a fully charter compliant process that actually exceeds our international obligations but the consideration of those unfounded claims from designated safe countries would move somewhat more expeditiously, reducing the process by about four months by not allowing them to make two appeals, the first one being to the refugee appeal division.
Someone said that this is unfair or inappropriate. No less authority than the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said here in Ottawa on March 24, “there are indeed safe countries of origin. There are indeed countries in which there is a presumption that refugee claims will probably be not as strong as in other countries”.
He went on to say that we could not deny access to the initial hearing, which we do not in our proposed reforms, and that it was important to have a fair and transparent process for designating these countries, as do most western European asylum systems whose example we are emulating in these reforms.
I wan to be absolutely clear that the proposition is not to create a comprehensive list of all countries designated as safe or unsafe. To the contrary. The criteria would be the following. A country would need to be designated as safe. We propose that this designation process would be in the hands of a panel of senior public servants who would make consultations with UNHCR and would refer to independent human rights supports by NGOs. The criteria would be: if a country is a principal source of asylum claims to Canada, the overwhelming majority of which are unfounded; and if such a country is a signatory to and in compliance with international human rights instruments, which has a strong human rights record and which offers state protection to its citizens, including vulnerable individuals.
Why do we need this? The reason is that periodically we see huge spikes in unfounded claims from democratic countries. Twenty-five years ago it was Portugal, not under a dictatorship, but a social democratic government. Thousands of claims were received and almost all of them were found to be false. What did Canada do? It imposed a visa.
In 2000, it was Chile, not under Pinochet, but a social democratic government, the most stable and prosperous democracy in South America. We received thousands of claims and almost all of them were found not to be in need of Canada's protection. How did we respond? We imposed a visa on Chile. In 2003 and 2004, it was Costa Rica, the most stable and prosperous democracy in Central America. We received thousands of claims and almost all of them were found to be not in need of our protection. Canada imposed a visa. In 1997, it was Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Thousands of claims were received and almost all were unfounded. We imposed a visa. Now I mention the situation with respect to Hungary.
When we see these spikes, it is important to understand that these are not just happening spontaneously. We have solid reason to believe that behind these waves of unfounded claims from democratic countries, there are often networks encouraging, facilitating, advising people, commercial networks, the bottom feeders in the immigration industry or sometimes there is evidence of even criminal networks.
All we are saying is that we need a tool other than the imposition of visas to address those spikes in unfounded claims. I appreciate the support and agreement of the in this respect. Last August, in Saint John, New Brunswick, he said, “I want a legitimate, lawful refugee system that to get to the openness point welcomes genuine refugees”. He then said, Look, there are a number of countries in the world in which we cannot accept a bona fide refugee claim because you do not have cause, you do not have just cause coming from those countries. It is rough and ready but otherwise we will have refugee fraud and nobody wants that, including bona fide refugees”.
The may have gone a little bit too far in suggesting that we deny access to the asylum system to claimants from safe countries, but his general concept is entirely sensible and has been endorsed by virtually every newspaper in the country, for example, that has editorialized on this matter.
As I said, these reforms have been broadly endorsed. Eighty-four percent of Canadians say that the government should take steps to reform the refugee determination system,. Eighty-one percent of Canadians agree that refugee claims should be dealt with more quickly so that genuine refugees can settle in Canada faster and bogus claimants can be sent home more quick. By a margin of four to one, Canadians agree that more needs to be done to quickly remove from Canada people whose refugee claims are unfounded and rejected.
The Toronto Star has said, “the government deserves credit for showing the political will to act on an issue ducked by many of our predecessors”. The Globe and Mail says, “Canada has a crying need for a revamped refugee determination system”. The Montreal Gazette says, ”these reforms are a solid and a sensible attempt to reform the system”. Peter Schowler, former IRB chairman and head of the refugee think-tank at the University of Ottawa says, “the Conservative government has managed to propose a system that is both fast and fair, striking a reasonable balance between the two”. The Canadian Lawyer Magazine says, ”the lawyers in the immigration field probably support these reforms”.
These are balanced, reasonable reforms that I believe all members in all parties can support. I will be open to reasonable amendments that achieve the objective of a fast and fair system when this bill gets to committee. I hope that on this urgent issue we will all put aside partisan politics to some degree to allow our humanitarian tradition to prevail so that we can improve and protect the important humanitarian tradition of providing protection to those in need of it.
Madam Speaker, it is critical that we examine the legislation before us and ensure that the refugee system reform measures will fix the refugee system challenges our country faces. Let us put the system into its proper context.
Today we have a backlog of 63,000 refugee claims. People in genuine need of protection wait about 19 months for processing claims. We have witnessed the drastic 50% decrease in the number of finalized claims and an almost 50% increase in the cost to finalize a single claim. The estimated cost to taxpayers is approximately $29,000 for processing each claimant.
There was a delay by the Conservative government in filling vacancies at the Immigration and Refugee Board which negatively affected the performance of the board. The minister's 2009-10 report on planning and priorities states that the shortfall in decision makers has contributed to the growth of the pending case inventory and to increased average of processing times. In addition, the Auditor General, in the March 2009 report of the Auditor General of Canada, chapter two, asserts her concern for the need to timely and efficiently appoint and reappoint decision makers to the IRB.
These facts and others made the case for comprehensive refugee reform very obvious and an absolute priority. Although reform of the refugee system is needed, we must ensure that it is fair, efficient and just. While the reform package incorporates some Liberal recommendations such as the refugee appeal division, we have to do due diligence on the bill. After all, there are concerns about what has occurred in the past four years, such as slow processing times and longer wait periods for persons claiming refugee status so, caution is in fact warranted.
Therefore, before any refugee reform legislation is implemented, we will ensure that it meets our standards of procedural fairness, that it is just, fast and efficient and that it does not undermine the trust many people place in our system. Obviously, as the minister alluded to, Canadians cannot afford further poorly implemented band-aid solutions like the imposition of visas on individuals from countries such as Mexico and the Czech Republic as happened last summer. This is the reason we will seek assurances that this reform package is going to meet the highest standard of public policy-making.
In 2004, the former Liberal government implemented changes to the appointment process for the Immigration and Refugee Board. Changes included an advisory panel made up of lawyers, academics and others involved in the refugee process which screened all applicants for the IRB. When the present government came to power, unfortunately it delayed appointments. Everyone knows the result of that has been a ballooning refugee backlog. This is what the bill is also trying to address.
In addition to the growing backlog of applications, there has been concern expressed about the integrity of our system. As I said earlier, recent spikes in claims from certain countries have resulted in an ad hoc use of visa restriction to constrict application volumes. As mentioned earlier, significant examples of this occurred last summer when in response to a spike in claims from Mexico and the Czech Republic, the imposed visa restrictions on both countries. When we impose visa restrictions, we can jeopardize or strain relationships with countries, in the case of Mexico with one of our North American economic partners. In the case of the Czech Republic, there were also bad feelings created in the European Union as a result.
The government's justification for the bill is focused on streamlining the system to deal with the growing application backlog, providing further flexibility to the minister to deal with the unusual spikes in refugee claims from democratic source countries and streamlining the removal process for unsuccessful applicants.
The bill proposes changes to almost every stage of the in-Canada process. Currently, people with successful claims are waiting an average of 19 months for a decision and it takes an average of four or five years to process and remove an unsuccessful claimant.
Information is currently gathered within 28 days through a personal information form. Under this bill, personal information would be gathered within eight days of a claim through an interview process. It is hoped that this will avoid delays related to incomplete forms and late paperwork. However, there have been significant concerns that this timeline is unrealistic and will result in claimants being unable to get appropriate counsel.
Possible changes around timelines and appropriate legal aid protection should be considered. We cannot afford to have a system where legal counsel is effectively denied and where a poor decision will lead perhaps to a number of time-consuming adjournments.
In the current system, a first-level decision is made by a governor in council appointee within about 18 months. Under the new process, the first-level decision would be made by an IRB public servant within about 60 days. Other countries that have public servant first-level decision makers tend to have higher rates of successful appeals. This can make the process less efficient overall and undermine trust in the refugee determination system.
For instance, the UNHCR has expressed concerns that administrative decision makers in the United Kingdom are inadequately trained and are not producing quality credibility assessments at hearings. Although CIC officials claim that the decision makers in the new system would be senior level and would be highly trained, there is no guarantee of that in this package. The fact that decision makers are housed in the independent IRB may alleviate some concerns regarding their independence, but close assessment of their qualifications, training and hiring processes will be required.
Concerns have also been raised about the 60 day timeline, whether it is realistic and whether it will limit a claimant's ability to obtain representation and compile a proper case within this timeline. Review of these timelines and possible further legal aid support will be required.
There is currently no appeal within the IRB and review is left to the Federal Court. It should be noted that the concept of a refugee appeals division was part of the initial Liberal plan for the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
The bill would create a new refugee appeals division, RAD, staffed by governor in council appointees to review negative first-level decisions. The target for the appeal process in this case would be within four months. Most of the appeals would be paper based, but there would be an opportunity for an oral hearing and the introduction of new evidence that was not available at the time of the first hearing.
In the United Kingdom, 89% of the initial 2007 decisions were appealed and 23% of those initial refusals were overturned. This has led to a huge court backlog of 450,000 cases as of 2008 in the United Kingdom, which may take between 10 to 18 years to resolve. By comparison, in Canada only 1% of asylum appeals are currently successful.
Guidelines are expected to clearly set out when an oral hearing is necessary and when an appeal should proceed in writing. The adjudicator's decision to proceed in writing or not would create an additional administrative decision that could be appealed to the Federal Court.
The primary concern about the introduction of the RAD would be to ensure that the first-level decision is conducted in a way that protects procedural fairness and fundamental justice sufficiently to avoid the RAD becoming another bottleneck in the process.
The system does not currently include a designated country of origin list. The bill would provide the minister with discretion to create designated countries of origin. This is one of the most contentious proposed changes.
The UNHCR has already expressed concern that any such process must take into account the gender and sexual orientation persecution issues in many democratic countries. This may also create diplomatic problems as countries lobby to be put on the list or may be insulted that they have been left off.
UNHCR has previously indicated that safe country of origin practices are acceptable as a procedural tool provided we have safeguards in place. The bill would remove access to the RAD for individuals from designated countries of origin. However, claimants can still have a negative decision reviewed by the Federal Court.
There are still unanswered questions about the process for adding countries to the designated country of origin list. Although we have been assured that this will be used as a last resort to avoid the imposition of visas in countries in good human rights records, issues of fairness and fundamental justice will have to be addressed.
Legal experts are pointing to a major difference between Canada's proposed legislation and that of European countries. The word “safe” does not appear anywhere in the relevant section of Bill . This omission, they say, places too much legal discretion in the hands of the minister and raises serious questions about the law's potential use. It may be appropriate to look at the process by which countries are designated and incorporates some level of independence for selection or parliamentary oversight through amendments.
Currently a claimant has access to multiple appeal processes, including the Federal Court, after each additional rejection. The bill would restrict access to other avenues of appeal for one year following the last negative decision. That means that once the IRB, or RAD, if triggered, has rendered its decision, post decision processes will be barred for one year to allow for removal within that year. Applicants would retain the ability to appeal to the Federal Court. For the information of members, barred avenues include pre-removal risk assessment, section 25, a humanitarian and compassionate grounds application, applications for temporary residence and administrative deferrals of removal.
There would also be a ban on concurrent applications under the refugee protection system and under section 25 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Prior to the first level decision, applicants in the refugee system would be required to select which stream they would like to pursue. Unsuccessful refugee applicants would be banned from section 25 applications for one year from their final IRB determination. After one year from the final IRB decision, the section 25 avenue would again be reopened or open to the applicant. Any time bars to accessing pre-removal assessment or humanitarian and compassionate applications would still need to be reasonable and procedurally fair, as the life, freedom and security of the applicant could be at stake pending the outcome of these decisions.
The humanitarian and compassionate review process operates as an avenue of last resort for persons who do not fit into any of the categories in IRPA to appeal directly to the minister. Limiting access to humanitarian and compassionate grounds could lead to people being deported in the face of humanitarian injustices and safeguards. This will require close review. This issue will require further study to assess the practicality of closing all these avenues of recourse.
The reform package proposes $540.7 million over five years and $85.4 million in ongoing funding. The $540 million is broken down into $324 million over five years for the development of the new refugee system, $126 million to address the backlog and $90 over five years to increase the number of refugees resettled from abroad.
The concern we have, and I have stated this to the minister, is that these funds were not set out in budget 2010 and the Conservatives told us program spending was frozen for the next several years. The minister has stated that these funds are in the fiscal framework, so it will have to be determined what will be cut to take into account these new expenditures. For instance, according to budget 2010, CBSA was actually identified as a source of savings of $54 million in 2011 and $58.4 million in 2012-13 through streamlining and cuts, but had been allocated $142 million in new money under this plan. Questions about transparency and accountability of funding are of concern. We want to ensure that the investment Canadian taxpayers make actually goes where it is supposed to go.
There has been a wide variety of reaction to the tabling of Bill and even prior to the introduction of the bill. For example, the UN High Commissioner was concerned prior to the introduction of the bill about the countries of origin idea. He stated that the new measures must recognize such things as “sexual preference”, are “grounds for persecution even in democracies”. He also noted other potential issues about gender.
Another individual, Professor Peter Showler, notes that the requirement that the first hearing take place within 60 days after a very quick interview is too quick and impractical. It is impractical in the sense that the refugee will not be able to find a lawyer, inform the lawyer, let the lawyer gather the evidence and present that evidence at the hearing. If that first hearing is not a good hearing, the entire system will unravel fairly quickly. He suggests that 120 days would be a more realistic time frame.
Lastly, the Canadian Council of Refugees does not agree with any of the major changes in the bill, stating that the introduction of a list of “safe countries of origin” is a mistake and has basically criticized the entire approach.
The Liberal Party and the Auditor General of Canada have noted the need to reform the refugee system for a while now. We must address some of the flaws that I have stated, however, there are some positive steps in this bill regarding needed refugee reform.
We must examine the effectiveness and fairness of the timelines for the first decisions so that they are realistic and ensure that the refugees are adequately represented. Refugees may face logistical challenges in acquiring the necessary materials to support their cases due to poor infrastructure in source countries or translation requirements. We must ensure the fundamental justice of vulnerable people involved in the system and ensure a flawed first-level process does not result in a backed up system at the appeal level, like they are struggling with in other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom. It is important that we ensure that all claimants have equal and fair access to the appropriate legal representation.
In the case of the quality of first level decision-makers, it is important that the government provide more specific details about the independence and qualification of the proposed first line decision-makers.
Clause 12 of Bill would give the minister the authority to designate a country, or part of a country, or class of nationals of a country, according to criteria to be established by regulation. Persons from designated areas of classes may not appeal negative refugee protection decisions to the Refugee Appeal Division. Nor may the minister appeal cases involving these people. Instead applicants and the minister would need to seek leave to appeal the first level decision from the federal court. The designated authority of origin clause may be problematic in its design, as it may present concerns of transparency and accountability.
Several lawyers and academics have raised concerns about the specific wording of the provision in Bill , which refers to “designated countries of origin” rather than “safe countries of origin”. They argue that the current wording provides the minister with too much discretion in designating countries and that it is susceptible to politicization.
Bill would make several changes to the humanitarian and compassionate grounds for foreign nationals in Canada. For instance, according to subclause 4(1), the minister may not examine requests to remaining Canada's permanent residents on humanitarian and compassionate grounds if less than 12 months have passed since the final negative IRB decision.
It is obvious that we have presented a credible case for changes to a number of elements of Bill . As Canadians, we take pride in the fact that our country offers a safe haven to so many who are victims of fear, discrimination or persecution in their home countries. Throughout this parliamentary debate, our focus must be on creating the best possible refugee system.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise here today to speak to Bill .
I would like to begin by saying that the Bloc Québécois will support sending this bill to committee so it may be studied more thoroughly, along with all issues pertaining to immigration and refugees.
This bill raises a number of concerns. We have already pointed out several inconsistencies relating to refugee status.
I would like to talk about two people I know personally from my riding. A man and woman, now married, are refugees from Tanzania and they are still waiting for their children. They have been fighting to bring their children to Canada for five years. They were asked to submit to DNA testing. The UN even had to intervene to do a comparative study and ensure that these children really are the children of this refugee couple in Canada. Now that we have received the results, we hope things will speed up, but there are still some obstacles.
When the children of legitimate refugees in Canada spend five years in refugee camps, we have every right to wonder if the measures proposed by the minister are rigorous enough to ensure that refugee claims under the family reunification program are being assessed correctly.
A number of countries are considered safe. We have a major problem with this provision in the bill. Who can determine with certainty whether or not a country is safe? Apparently Mexico is considered a safe country. However, on the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada website, Canadians travelling to Mexico are discouraged from visiting certain regions of the country because doing so would put their lives at risk.
If it is too dangerous for the lives of Canadians and Quebeckers, is it not too dangerous for the Mexicans living there? Why are Mexicans who want to be free from the shackles of the drug wars and power struggles throughout their country not allowed to claim refugee status? Are we perhaps underestimating the safe nature of that country?
Yesterday, a new government was elected in Hungary. At first glance, that country seems safe. The right wing government has two thirds of the seats. With that many seats, it can implement measures to advance its program without having to consult other political parties. Hungary may have been considered safe yesterday or today, but tomorrow human rights there might not be respected the same way and the situation might change.
The House has passed a bill on free trade with Colombia. And yet there is a call for greater respect for human rights in that country. If a Colombian citizen applied, could he be considered a refugee in Canada if we have a free trade agreement with his country? We have to wonder.
In Colombia, abortion is illegal and punishable by a prison sentence. In more than 70 countries around the world, homosexuality is illegal and even punishable by death in some countries. What would happen if people from those countries came here? We know what our Conservative colleagues think about homosexuality. In a country where homosexuality is legal and part of our daily lives, a minister who offered a subsidy for Toronto's gay pride parade was rebuked and put in her place.
Therefore, we have good reason to ask whether giving the minister the latitude to designate safe countries without consulting this House is an acceptable measure.
On the other hand, we are pleased that the minister wants to speed up the refugee claim process. However, we must not move too quickly and we must be careful. We all know that a refugee is often someone who has left their country in a hurry with nothing, without documents or money, and is truly destitute. When a person leaves their country with absolutely nothing, it takes a little more than eight days to obtain the necessary documents.
We might be able to do something, to make some changes to the bill so that the person's first appearance is scheduled more than eight days later. This would allow the person to obtain documents, think about what he wants to do, how to do it and better understand what is happening. The person would have the opportunity to consult the various organizations in the community that could help him.
It has also been noted that there are some changes in the bill with respect to the refugee appeal division and we are pleased that it is finally being implemented. In fact, the Bloc Québécois has introduced two bills to create and implement the refugee appeal division, even though it was contained in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that this House voted on. Neither bill was successful. One version even died after being adopted by the Senate. When it returned to the House, the bill died because, if I recall correctly, the House was closed for an election.
It is unfortunate because, since 2005, the number of people applying for refugee status has more than doubled, from 20,000 then to 60,000 today. That is truly a lot of people claiming refugee status.
On the weekend, I got a call from a psychologist who works with victims of rape, incest and sexual abuse. She told me about a woman who had been imprisoned last week because she claimed refugee status and was not believed. This woman is from Guinea, where customary marriages are still common. She was married at a very young age to a much older man, who abused her sexually and physically. She had very obvious signs of torture on her body, and even a scar from an iron on her breast. The hospital here in Canada was able to determine that this woman really had been abused.
This woman claimed refugee status, and after having lived in Canada for some time, she met a man from her country of origin, fell in love with him and married him. After getting married, she pursued her claim for refugee status, but she was told that her marriage with this man was not genuine and she was accused of fraud. She was told that she had only married this man to obtain refugee status and sponsorship, although they had been legally married in front of the entire community. They are together, they are married, and they are now expecting a child.
Last year, at the beginning of the economic crisis, the said that if there was no work in Quebec and the Atlantic provinces, workers should go out west, where there is work. This woman's husband listened to the minister and went out west to support his family. The couple was then told that their marriage was not genuine because he went to work out west to support his family. That is unbelievable.
Last week, this 42-year-old woman, who has type 2 diabetes, was put in jail. She is now at the immigration detention centre in Laval. On April 28, she is going to be sent back to her country, where nobody will take care of her or her soon-to-be-born baby. Yet this very day, G8 ministers are in Halifax talking about maternal and child health, and the wants to introduce a maternal and child health initiative.
We cannot even take care of people here who are suffering and who could die if they return to their home countries because they will not receive adequate care. They could die. In Guinea, there are no doctors to provide the care that this woman will need until she gives birth because she has type 2 diabetes and is obese.
In reviewing the immigration system, we have to begin by making sure that public officials and judges have solid reasons for turning down applications from all individuals who have legitimate claims.
People have all kinds of reasons for wanting to stay here. A claimant might be a man who just wants to support his family. In contrast, a claimant might be a woman who says that she was forced to marry and will be found guilty by her ex-husband's family if she goes back to her home country. In these countries, women are held responsible if their husbands die. They can be charged and may suffer greatly.
How can we justify sending people back to countries like those whose values differ so dramatically from our own? Why would we support women in developing countries and save their lives when we do not support women and save their lives when they come here to ask for our help? I would really like to know. I am really confused about this, and I would like an answer to that question very soon.
I hope that this woman will be allowed to stay here. I hope she will not be sent away before her baby is born. It would be inhumane to send a woman in such a high-risk situation back to her country.
The refugee appeal division should have been implemented earlier so that this women could really appeal the decision made against her. Unfortunately, we are told that the refugee appeal division will come into effect by 2013 or 2014. That is three years from now, three long years for people who are suffering and wondering whether their claim will be heard. I hold out very little hope that this will happen.
I have often heard the minister talk to refugee, immigrant and other groups, and I believe he tells the truth. But I would like that honesty to extend to the measures he introduces.
I know that it is not as easy for a party to be in government as in opposition, because it has to take budgets and other factors into account. But the government members also have to consider what their colleagues are saying and calling for.
I hope this minister will do what he needs to do to ensure that all genuine refugee claimants can obtain refugee status. Too many people around the world are suffering. Moreover, we signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which means that we must not take refugee claimants' sexual orientation or country of origin into consideration, or what they are or what they do.
All we must consider is what they need.
We will support Bill C-11 so that it goes to committee and we can suggest amendments and correct measures that we feel are slightly random, unjustified or unjustifiable. I hope that everyone who is watching today will support what the Bloc Québécois is doing so that all refugee claimants can obtain refugee status.
In conclusion, the men and women who sit in the House have ideals and values similar to our own in some areas. I am certain that we will make the right decisions. We will do everything we can to ensure that the parts of the bill that we are not happy with are amended. Otherwise, the bill will not meet our expectations or refugee claimants' needs.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak in this debate on Bill .
The Conservatives, in their penchant for giving bills nicknames, have called this the “balanced refugee reform act”. I am hoping beyond hope that this will be the case with this legislation but there have been some serious concerns raised about the bill and I hope to speak to some of those.
Canada has always been a haven for refugees. We as a country have done very well by those refugees who have arrived here and made Canada their home. Whether it was the United Empire Loyalists at the time of the American revolution, Hungarians in 1956, people from the Unites States who resisted the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese boat people after the end of the Vietnam War, or people from the People's Republic of China after the events of Tiananmen Square, Canada has benefited greatly from these significant refugee movements. Those are just some of the movements of political refugees that have seen people come to Canada.
There have also been significant refugee movements fleeing economic problems and other social problems in their country of origin. We saw the Irish in the 19th century at the time of the potato famine. We saw Scottish emigration, eastern European emigration and emigration from Asia and Italy. In fact, my own family and probably many of our families came to Canada as economic migrants. All of these groups and many others have contributed greatly and continue to contribute greatly to building our country.
Hon. Jason Kenney: Hear, hear!
Mr. Bill Siksay: I appreciate the minister's applause. He did speak about that in his remarks as well. However, there have been failures of our immigration refugee policy that left people unprotected. One of the most egregious of those cases was the Jewish refugees who came to Canada during World War II and were not welcomed and were turned away. There were also the people on board the Komagata Maru who arrived in Vancouver at the turn of the last century and were returned to India.
Our failure to welcome refugees has had terrible consequences as well for those individuals. When we turn away someone whose life is in danger, the possibilities are not very positive, to say the least.
However, Canada overall has been known as a country that welcomes refugees and does it in a way that most other countries do not, which is something that is very significant. We were recognized by the United Nations for our efforts in refugee resettlement in 1986 with the Nansen medal. Canada is the only country to have been recognized in this way. Other individuals and agencies have been recognized but Canada remains the only country to have received the Nansen medal.
One of the successes of Canada's refugee policy has been the fact that there has been a significant grassroots and community involvement in refugee resettlement. We have seen that in most of our communities. There are individuals who participated in the resettlement of a refugee and worked with a family, for instance. Many agencies and community organizations work on these issues. Many of them are related to the private sponsorship program, which has been an inspired part of Canada's refugee legislation, where groups of Canadians can get together and participate directly in helping the resettlement of refugees and refugee families in Canada. That was a brilliant policy decision and continues to be a backbone of our refugee policy.
Canadian churches have been very active in sponsoring and resettling refugees in Canada and they remain one of the key players in our refugee policy.
All of this has led to the fact that there is considerable ownership of our refugee policy at a grassroots level in Canada. Because so many Canadians have been directly involved in the refugee process, they believe they have an important interest in the policies and in legislation of the kind we are debating today.
Canadians recognize that the job is not done and far from it. Millions of people still languish in refugee camps near trouble spots around the world. That number is not reducing in a significant way and continues to be very troubling. The conditions in those refugee camps are also very difficult.
Far too many people are still persecuted, even to death, for their political views or for their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity around the world. Steadily, in many ways, we have been making it harder for those people to escape their own country and find a safe haven here in Canada.
We did things like the safe third country agreement with the United States that said that if a refugee came through the United States before making a claim in Canada they could be returned to the United States. I think that was abandoning Canada's responsibility to those people when Canada's policy was different from that of the United States when it came to offering people protection.
We introduced things like documentation requirements before people board airlines to fly to Canada ensuring they had documentation when often many refugees and people who are escaping persecution do not have the required documents.
In recent years, our refugee determination system has been a mess, frankly, because we have used it as a political football. We have seen many political considerations given, political appointments in terms of people who were sitting on the IRB, and other ways that we have played games with our refugee system at the cost of protecting people. That has resulted in huge backlogs in our refugee determination process.
Our previous governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have allowed this backlog to grow. At the end of the last Liberal government, the Liberals had taken some important steps to improve the situation. They had made progress with regard to the backlog and the Immigration and Refugee Board, the IRB, was at a point where it was almost caught up in a sense when the Conservatives came to power in 2006. There was still a backlog but there will always be a backlog situation in any of these agencies. However, the IRB was to the point of believing that the backlog was manageable and one that would not have produced many serious delays at that point.
Unfortunately, when the Conservatives came to power I think they played politics with the IRB. They refused to reappoint board members who had been appointed by the Liberals and they also refused to appoint new board members. The result was that the backlog ballooned back to where it had been in earlier years. As a result of that backlog, the unfairness also grew. We lost many experienced people from the IRB in that period. The IRB lost that experience, that ability to do an effective and fair job.
The Auditor General even became involved when she warned that the system was collapsing under the huge backlog. This is another situation where the IRB and refugee process as a political football came back into play. I believe the crisis today was created by the Conservatives, by the current government, and now they are creating a solution to the problem that they created. It is a bit of a revolving door and one that continues to concern me.
Conservative and Liberal governments have also shown great disrespect to the existing immigration and refugee law, and that is primarily for their refusal to implement the refugee appeal division which is a feature of the current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This act was brought in and debated in 2001, given royal assent in 2002 and contains a provision for a refugee appeal division, something that the minister described as “dormant”. Well the reality was that the Liberals and Conservatives refused to implement that part of the law that had been debated and passed here in the House of Commons and in the Senate. It was never implemented. I think the refugee appeal division would have brought a measure of fairness to our refugee determination system.
The refugee appeal division, RAD, came about through negotiation when the government of the day wanted to move from two member boards at refugee hearings to one member boards. The compromise to ensure fairness was the refugee appeal division. It was not an expensive proposition. It would have cost $8 million to $10 million to establish and $2 million a year to run, not a significant sum in terms of our overall expenditure in the refugee program, but it would have added a measure of fairness to that process.
There was a distinct lack of respect for the process in the past and I wonder if the current legislation before us has a provision for a refugee appeal division, but I do not know. My expectation of fairness of actually seeing that implemented, I have to say, I am a little cynical given our experience with the existing RAD and the fact that it was never implemented.
The NDP has always called for an effective, fair and streamlined refugee process and we have said that there are some principles that need to be the foundation of our refugee determination process. We believe that each case should be assessed on its individual merit. We believe in the need to invest in high quality initial decisions and that we need to get it right the first time. It needs to be a non-political process and the decisions need to be made by an independent body. It needs to be a simple system that avoids unnecessary rules. The necessary resources to ensure that the system functions appropriately need to be in place so that backlogs can be avoided. We also need to remember at all times that human lives are at stake and that we need to uphold human rights standards throughout this important process.
New Democrats have long proposed some specific measures for a fast and fair refugee process. These include that all appointments of IRB board members should be done by an independent appointment commissioner with set criteria for expertise in refugee matters. Such a merit-based appointments process was championed by our former leader, Ed Broadbent. We believe that there needs to be a crackdown on unscrupulous immigration consultants by banning them from the Immigration and Refugee Board hearing room and providing legal aid for proper representation. A provision for appropriate legal representation for refugee claimants continues to be a real issue in our refugee determination system.
We believe that we need to hire more permanent refugee protection officers to clear the backlog. We have seen this done in the past with some success. We also believe that we need to set up the refugee appeal division so that consistent decisions can be made based on fact and law. Parliament mandated, as I mentioned, this refugee appeal division in 2001 but the Liberals and Conservatives chose to ignore the law and not put it in place.
Bill has some serious flaws. Some of the key organizations that have an interest in the refugee process have outlined some of the problems.
Whenever I look for information on our refugee process, I look to the work of the Canadian Council for Refugees, which is an umbrella organization of many Canadian refugee serving organizations. It has delineated its concerns with this legislation, which I believe merit close attention. One of its key concerns is the designated countries of origin list. This bill would empower the minister to designate countries whose nationals would not have access to the refugee appeal process. This is the so-called safe countries of origin list. The council points out that the word safe does not appear anywhere in Bill , which seems somewhat problematic given the intent of this legislation.
The council also believes that this is an unfair proposal because treating claimants differently based on country of origin is discriminatory. It believes that each case must be assessed individually. It believes that some claimants will be particularly hurt, including women who are making gender-based claims and persons claiming on the basis of sexual orientation. In many countries that are otherwise considered peaceful or safe, there can be serious problems of persecution on these grounds.
Claimants from designated countries will face a bias against them even at the first level since decision-makers will be aware of the government's judgment on that country. There will be an overall presumption of safety in certain countries that will affect the process.
Some claims from countries that are generally seen not to be refugee producing are among those that most need appeal due to the difficult issues of fact and law, such as the availability of state protection. The denial of fair process to these claimants may lead to their forced return to persecution, a violation of human rights law.
The Canadian Council for Refugees says there are other concerns as well about designated countries of origin. It says:
|| Having a list of “safe countries of origin” politicizes the refugee system. There will be new diplomatic pressures from countries unhappy about not being considered “safe”.
As currently drafted, the amendment would give the minister a blank cheque to designate any country, part of a country or groups within a country without reference to the principles of refugee protection. Those are serious issues that have been raised by the Canadian Council for Refugees.
The council goes on to note that it has problems with the eight day interview and hearing process after 60 days. The government has proposed that claimants be interviewed by the Immigration and Refugee Board after eight days and that their hearing take place 60 days later. The council believes that eight days after arrival is too soon for a formal interview. The interview is used to take the claimant's detailed statement about his or her claim. It would be unfair to the most vulnerable claimants, such as those traumatized by experiences of torture or women unaccustomed to speaking to authority figures.
Some claimants are ready for a hearing after 60 days, but others are not, including refugees who need to build trust in order to be able to testify freely, such as persons who have experienced sexual assault. Other refugees need more than 60 days to gather relevant documentation to support their claim, especially those whose claim relates to a newly emerging pattern of persecution or those who are in detention.
Again, there are very serious concerns about holding hearings before claimants are ready to deal with that important part of the process.
The Canadian Council for Refugees also raises concerns about decision makers and who is making the decisions in this process. It notes that first-instance decision makers would be civil servants rather than cabinet appointees. Members of the refugee appeal division would be appointed by the cabinet.
It says that this does perhaps go in some way to dealing with problematic political appointments, but it also raises some concerns, noting that assigning refugee determination to civil servants is fundamentally problematic because they lack the necessary independence
It also notes that limiting appointments to civil servants will exclude some of the most highly qualified potential decisions makers, from a diverse range of backgrounds such as academia, human rights and social service. It believes that will affect the quality of decisions.
The question of appointments to the RAD remains unresolved. Under the bill they would be political appointments, which will affect the quality of decision making.
The CCR notes problems with the appeal and pre-removal risk assessment. It notes that the pre-removal risk assessment still exists but that it is an ineffective and inefficient system. Also it believes that, for some claimants, this will continue to be an issue because of its inefficiency requiring a whole second structure to do the same work as the immigration and refugee board, something that is not fully addressed in the bill.
The Canadian Council for Refugees is also concerned for the humanitarian and compassionate consideration provisions of the bill. The bill would bar refugee claimants from applying for humanitarian and compassionate consideration while their claim is in process and for 12 months afterwards.
Applicants for H and C consideration would also be barred from raising factors related to risks here and in the country of origin. The CCR believes that H and C consideration is necessary as a recourse to consider human rights issues including the best interests of children and potential risk to persons. Closing off this recourse may be contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those are some of the concerns raised by the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Amnesty International, another well-respected organization that has a key interest in refugee policies, also has very serious concerns about the safe country of origin list. It says that such lists constitute discrimination among refugees that is strictly prohibited by article 3 of the refugee convention. Article 3 of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is about non-discrimination. It states:
|| The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.
Amnesty International also notes in a statement on this new legislation:
||...over the course of nearly fifty years of human rights research around the world we have consistently highlighted it is not possible to definitively characterize countries as safe or unsafe when it comes to human rights. We are very concerned that decisions about which countries to include on any such “safe country of origin” list will almost inevitably be influenced by considerations other than human rights, including trading relationships and security cooperation with other governments.
One of the other organizations that has taken a very key interest in this is the Canadian Bar Association. Its citizenship and immigration law section is very concerned about the bill and asked that it be subject to a referral before second reading so that the committee could deal with the very serious concerns that are raised in it.
Yesterday I met with a refugee activist in British Columbia who is also very concerned about this legislation. She was very concerned that safe countries do not necessarily mean that all the people of those countries are safe and that the legislation needs to talk about safe people. She was also concerned about the language around bogus claims and abuse of the system, which she thinks was not particularly helpful in all of this.
There are many concerns about this legislation. I hope we can have a very fulsome debate on it and one at committee as well. I would have preferred that we got there before second reading so it could be a really extensive debate at committee.