Thank you, Mr. McCallum, and good afternoon to everyone.
I'm the former chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board and for the past 10 years I've been teaching refugee law at the University of Ottawa, but today I'm here as a spokesperson for the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.
We have provided you with a written brief that sets out the reasons why refugee claimants must continue to receive social assistance. Accordingly, CARL is asking you to either reject the amendments or amend them in such a way that refugee claimants and refugees continue to receive social assistance all across Canada.
In the short time available I'll address six issues very quickly. The first one is, and I hope this is clear, that the bill will allow provinces to deny social assistance to refugees. The wording of the bill only identifies certain groups, mainly citizens and permanent residents, who cannot be excluded from social assistance. The amendment allows provinces to deny benefits to refugee claimants and refugees, and refugees will be caught by any residency period eligibility because their eligibility for social assistance begins at the time they make their refugee claim. So the most vulnerable period is exactly that first part of their claim, which is important.
And to make it clear, that's what's going on with the refugee process. There is not a distinction in terms of social assistance between refugee claimants and refugees. That has sometimes been discussed, but there's not, because when they make their claim that's what's going on with the refugee claim process. They're trying to decide whether or not they are refugees.
At the first stage of that process before the refugee protection division, approximately 50% of those claimants will be accepted as refugees. That's important to remember.
Secondly, even those who are refused by the first level then have the opportunity to either seek an appeal before the refugee appeal division of the IRB or to seek judicial review.
I can tell you that statistically—and the statistics are very complicated, and if you want to ask a question I'll go through them all—you can accept as a fair and rough approximation that approximately 60% of those refugee claimants will ultimately be accepted as refugees. I'm making that point so when right at the start if you think you're only denying social assistance to claimants, 60% of those people will be eventually accepted as refugees. So that's I think the first important point to be made.
In terms of the timing, we don't know what the eligibility period will be. It could be different from different provinces, but essentially the first stage of the process is approximately four months and after that for claimants who are in the appeal or judicial review process it could be approximately another nine months before they're ultimately either accepted or refused.
It is important to remember that only 3% of refugees are actually found to have no credible basis to their claim, and that is really the measure of the number of—and I don't like to use the word “bogus” refugees—fraudulent refugees. We're only talking about 3%.
The reason I point this out is that it means that for that other group who are refused as refugees, even if they're not accepted as refugees it does not mean they did not claim in good faith. It means that we know that the majority of them are refused for technical reasons, even if they're ultimately sent back. They actually applied in good faith. They're here legally in Canada and they also are entitled to be receiving social assistance through the claim process, up to the point where they're either accepted or they're denied, they're removed, and then of course at that point they no longer need social assistance.
In terms of why refugees should require social assistance, the desperate need of most refugee claimants when they arrive should be obvious to everybody here. And I'm sure my colleague, Ms. Loly Rico, will be saying even more so. Most are without means. Some have means. We're only discussing refugees without means, but that is the majority of claimants.
It's important to understand that they do not have the right to work. Many refugees would love to work. Some can apply in the beginning, but it takes at least three months before they receive work permits, and if they are in special categories, it will take six months. We're talking about people who, if they don't receive social assistance, have no other means of support.
In addition, even among those who can work, several categories are unemployable: children, the elderly, and claimants who are psychologically or physically injured, including as a result of the persecution they suffered or the long flight they took to Canada. Remember, for some refugees it takes two, three, four, or five years for them to actually arrive in Canada. For the same reason, I would say that many refugees—and this should be obvious to everyone—are vulnerable people; that is the nature of refugees.
One of the reasons CARL is here today is that we know our claimants. We know the ways in which they are so vulnerable: sometimes they don't speak English or French; they aren't acculturated to Canada; and often there is tremendous fear and tremendous confusion because, especially in those first two, three, four, or five months—and that's the period of time we're talking about—they're being denied social assistance. That's important to understand.
The next point, which I think is also quite important, is that without means of support, it will be almost impossible for a refugee claimant to prove their claim. You may ask why that would be. First of all, not all refugees get legal aid. Approximately 70% to 75% do, but it doesn't matter whether they get legal aid or not, because there are a lot of costs related to a refugee claim that are not covered by legal aid. For example, there is tremendous difficulty getting documentation from their home countries. There are copy costs. You say, well, copy costs—what is that? Copy costs can be a couple of hundred dollars. There are interpreter costs and translator costs that are not covered by the government. There are transportation costs. If you are completely indigent, how do you, along with your two kids, visit the lawyer's office five times and then get to the board?
If a person is really without any means, they would not be able to effectively actually prove their claim, and of course that undermines the fairness of our entire refugee system.
It's a bad idea.
In my legal brief, I go into some detail around the legal responsibilities Canada, as a host country, has to refugees. I won't go into details here other than to say that there are both national and international obligations. They're set out in the brief; however, constitutionally the federal government has responsibility for refugees under section 91(25) of the the Constitution Act. The primary responsibility is that of the government.
Although I can't quote all of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to you, I do want to quote one paragraph from the objectives, which is this:
3(2)(a)...the refugee program is in the first instance about saving lives and offering protection to the displaced and persecuted.
That is a primary objective and the responsibility of the federal government. I could ask, just the way the act reads and setting aside the legal terminology, in what sense you think that denial of food, shelter, medical care, and basic necessities would be about saving lives and offering protection.
There are two more things I want to tell you. The first is in terms of comparison. I've been in front of this committee frequently. Whenever introduced changes to the refugee system, he often referred to other developed countries and their systems. In particular, the principal countries for comparison were the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. All three of those countries, as well as Germany, provide social assistance. We only had time to research thoroughly four countries. All of them provide housing, shelter, food, medical care, and basic necessities. They do it in different ways. Some provide housing, but all of them do that. None of them leave refugees destitute. If you'd like, I could provide you with a chart that has more details.
The last thing I want to say—
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I support the amendments to the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act because I think it makes good sense and logic to do it. The provinces are responsible for setting the residency terms under the health care act and it's the provinces that administer social assistance in their respective jurisdictions. It seems logical to me that the federal government should live up to its principles of allowing the provinces to carry out their functions without interference. This is an anachronism that exists in the law and I think it should be changed. Remember that there's no compulsion whatsoever on the provinces to make changes. It's removing a penalty and allowing them, if they wish, to impose residency requirements on individuals.
The only categories that are touched by this possible disaster—as outlined by Mr. Showler—are temporary foreign workers, temporary students, and visitors to Canada. It has been pointed out, by officials who have come before you, that these three categories are only allowed into Canada upon evidence that they can look after themselves and be responsible for their housing and their care while here.
If a province wanted to put on residency requirements—which is unlikely to happen—the two categories that could be affected are asylum claimants and the groups I've just mentioned. In terms of the asylum claimants it seems to me that's the problematic area. If you look at it carefully you'll find there is a lot of assistance available, financial and otherwise, for asylum claimants even if a province should insist on residency requirements.
The federal government gives grants to the provinces for assistance in the settlement of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. I have some figures here. In 2010-11 the provinces received $893.4 million for the purpose of looking after immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and helping them settle. That's a lot of money. It's given to the provinces. In addition to that, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration has a considerable fund to give grants to non-governmental organizations and other agencies in Canada that are responsible for looking after and helping asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants.
In the period from October 1 to December 31, 2009, over 200 organizations in Canada received more than $25,000 in grants from the federal government to carry out those functions. There were 60 organizations in Canada that received more than $1 million. The purpose of these individual organizations—that were mainly ethnic groups, non-governmental organizations, or other agencies in the provinces and in cities of Canada—was to care for and look after immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who were in need. That's a considerable amount of money that's being paid.
The department—in 2010-11 in its estimates—set aside $651,749 for that; close to a billion dollars. If one of the provinces chose to decide to put residency requirements on asylum seekers I think there is plenty of opportunity for them to get assistance and help other than from the social welfare system.
I might point out that in the United States asylum seekers are not allowed to work for the first six months that they're in the United States and they get their assistance primarily from non-governmental organizations and other agencies that are funded by the U.S. government.
As I said, if by any remote chance a province might apply residence requirements on asylum seekers as a result of this amendment to the act, they would have ample opportunity to get the assistance and supplies they need without going to the federal or the provincial government.
I think another factor that's important here is that when we're dealing with failed asylum seekers, there was a time when there were many thousands of them. For example, in 2008 we had 33,000 asylum claims. They came from 188 different countries. We had 2,300 claims from American citizens. We had claims from 22 of the 26 European Community countries. But as a result of the, in my view, very needed and essential reform in the 2012 legislation, the number of asylum seekers coming in from so-called designated countries has been cut completely off. We're getting very, very few asylum claims from the United States, England, Germany, and Switzerland compared to what we used to get before the bill was passed in 2012. The result is that whereas it used to take up to a year, or two years or more, in some cases, to have an asylum claim adjudicated, it now takes between two and three months. There's a quick decision being made.
I would presume that most of the failed asylum seekers choose—because they choose to come here on their own—to go back to their country, where it's been proven that there is no concern, that they are not genuine refugees as defined in the UN convention.
My concluding word is that this is a housekeeping amendment. I don't see all of the dire consequences that have been outlined to you by Mr. Showler and others who will come before you. It's a simple housecleaning episode and we should get on with it.
Thank you very much.
My eight minutes start from now I hope.
I support the amendments to the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act. They give the provinces more flexibility without them losing funding. I think it's important to note that the proposed amendments will be another vital step in ensuring that there is not another pull factor for non-genuine refugee claimants in Canada.
The issue that we are talking about today is largely health care coverage. When Justice Mactavish made her decision in June to overturn the reductions that the government had made, she was praised by refugee advocacy groups, refugee lawyers, some medical practitioners, as well as prominent journalists.
What received almost no attention following the release of her judgment, however, was the fact that the reductions in services were not made in a vacuum. They were made because of concrete reasons involving widespread use of the refugee determination system.
Prior to the introduction of special treatment for claimants coming from DCOs, designated countries of origin, or safe countries of origin as they are generally called outside Canada, we were receiving thousands of claims from nationals of Hungary to the point where they constituted the largest number of claimants in Canada from any individual country. Since other countries did not consider them to be genuine refugees, almost none of their claims were accepted elsewhere. In 2010 Canada received 23 times as many claims from Hungarian nationals as did all other countries in the world combined. That is, out of 2,400 claims made worldwide, 2,300 were made in Canada. Then the number almost doubled to 4,400 in 2011.
Canada is by no means the only country that has had to deal with large numbers of questionable claims. Not long ago, for example, European member states received more than 19,000 applications from Serbian nationals in a two-year period, apparently because of the wide availability of information about benefits from asylum seekers. Of these, only 15 were successful in their claims. That is less than 1 in 1,000.
One of the means used in Europe to discourage people from designated countries of origin from applying for refugee status has been to accelerate the process into their claims and remove as quickly as possible the manifestly unfounded claims. Such rapid removal has no doubt deterred many from making such claims because, apart from the fact that they knew their applications were highly likely to be rejected in any event, they would be able to claim benefits only for a short period of time, which meant that the cost of getting to countries where they could make a claim would not be worth the time and effort.
Canada has accelerated the processing of such applications and this, probably in combination with the reduction of health care benefits, has resulted in a dramatic drop in such claims being made in the first place. I think Mr. Bissett mentioned this. By 2014, for example, claims by people from safe countries had fallen by 87% in Canada. In the case of Hungarian nationals, the decrease has been 97%, and with U.S. nationals it has been 80%.
Among other things, the dramatic reduction in the number of claims that are highly unlikely to have any merit will free up funds and staff time that will enable the refugee determination system to concentrate on the processing of claims of individuals who are much more likely to be in need of our protection.
The conclusion reached by Justice Mactavish that the measures taken by Canada were cruel and unusual, therefore, ignores the context in which the measures were taken and the fact that other countries faced with similar problems have taken firm steps to discourage claims by asylum seekers whose cases are highly likely to be without merit and slow down the processing of those more likely to be genuine. It's very similar.
Justice Mactavish also invoked section 15 of the Charter of Rights to say that it's discrimination to treat claimants differently.
The implication is that treating asylum seekers from designated countries such as Australia and the United States differently from those from non-DCOs such as Iran and Cuba, for example, is inconsistent with the charter. Therefore in her view the creation of the DCO list cannot be justified.
It is doubtful however whether the drafters of the charter ever had in mind that it be interpreted in this way.
Nor do questions relating to health care from asylum seekers apply only to those coming from DCOs. For example in 2013 Canada was finally able to remove convicted terrorist Mahmoud Mohammad Issa Mohammad who succeeded in entering the country in 1989 under a false identity. He avoided removal for more than two decades by using a multitude of available appeals and reviews and was provided throughout with a wide range of medical care for his health problems.
One of his later appeals was based on the argument he would suffer cruel and unusual punishment being sent back to his native Lebanon since the health care system there was not as good as in Canada.
Similar imbalances were seen in—
Thank you, Mr. Chair. It's a pleasure to be here today and to speak on the subject matter of certain clauses within Bill and I thank the committee for the invitation.
Just quickly, my name is Aaron Wudrick and I'm the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Our advocacy is centred around three key principles: lower taxes, less waste, and accountable government. It's largely on this third principle of accountable government that I appear today to speak to these provisions. My remarks are fairly limited in scope. We support the changes proposed in these provisions for the simple reason that, from our standpoint, they are purely jurisdictional in nature. We, of course, are not experts in refugee or immigration policy and we take no position at all as to whether or not provinces should actually set minimum residency requirements. We merely believe that, as the level of government responsible for the delivery of social services, the provinces are also the appropriate level of government to retain the power to make such a decision without the risk of fiscal penalty from Ottawa.
In short, if it is objectionable for the provinces to have this power, surely it must also be objectionable that the provinces already have the same power with respect to determining eligibility for health care services. As committee members are likely aware, many provinces already set a minimum residency requirement for access to health care services.
In our view, most opponents of these provisions are conflating two very separate debates. The first is whether or not foreign refugee claimants should be subject to a minimum residency requirement. The second is whether provinces should be able to make this decision without being penalized by Ottawa. It is, of course, entirely appropriate to debate whether or not there should be minimum residency requirements, but, again, this is not the area I'm here to comment on. The only contribution to the debate made by these proposed changes, however, is ensuring that this debate takes place in the provincial legislatures, and we view that as a positive change.
In our view, the real principle underlying these proposed changes is respect for provincial jurisdiction. When different levels of government overstep their constitutionally defined areas of jurisdiction, accountability suffers because Canadians are left unclear as to who bears responsibility for what. Only when each level of government takes proper responsibility can Canadians pass judgment at election time as to whether or not they approve of these policy decisions. Indeed, the inappropriate use of the federal spending power by federal governments to encroach upon areas of provincial jurisdiction has long been an unfortunate source of federal-provincial tension. These proposed changes would be one small step towards reducing that tension.
Good afternoon. First of all, we want to say thank you to the chair and the committee members for allowing the Canadian Council for Refugees to present our position on clauses 172 and 173 of .
I am not going to read the whole submission, because it will take longer than the six minutes. I am going to focus on one of the points.
Just to let the members know, if they don't know, the Canadian Council for Refugees is a national umbrella organization that is made up of 170 members that work for refugees and immigrants. We are firmly opposed to the proposed amendments. As you see in our written submission, we have several concerns.
One point we want to share with the members is that we are not the only ones. We presented an open letter to the , where 160 organizations were opposed to the amendments. These organizations represent not only refugees but also health, poverty, and human rights sectors, faith communities, women, and legal advocates. Among them are national, local, and provincial organizations. The main reason why we oppose these amendments is that refugee claimants are the most vulnerable population.
I want to give you a specific case, because in all the presentations we talk about refugee claimants in very broad terms. I work specifically with women and children. This is the experience of one refugee claimant whom I welcomed in my daily work. She is from the Congo. She fled persecution and even jail. Her family sold everything to protect her life. She arrived at Pearson airport and claimed refugee status. She didn't have money. She got to one of our refugee houses.
She has 15 days to present her basis of claim and to get a legal aid certificate. She also needs to have her medical exams. Once she has completed the BOC and the medical exams, she is allowed to apply for a work permit. That will take between three and four months. At the same time, she has to prepare herself to present her refugee case at the refugee hearing two months after she has arrived.
Imagine that she is living... I am talking about a case that is in a major city, but imagine that this woman went from Pearson to a refugee house in Windsor. She has to go and see her lawyer in Toronto. She has to go and do her refugee hearing in Toronto without money. Just put yourself in her shoes. At the same time, she doesn't have money to pay rent. She will be in a homeless shelter with other people, and one of the challenges she will face is that she won't have the right support.
With this example and this situation I'm presenting you with, these amendments are clearly targeting refugee claimants. Even though refugee claimants are not mentioned in the amendments, all the criteria and all the categories are there. That means this is a clear violation of the principle of human rights, because it is treating refugee claimants in a different and discriminatory way.
We need to remember, as some of the presenters expressed before, that Canada is a signatory to human rights international treaties, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in which we recognize the right of everyone to social security, including social insurance.
In addition, you need to take into consideration that refugee claimants are not only adults, but there are also children among them. Canada is a signatory country to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and has an obligation to protect children and provide basic services to them, including refugee claimants' children.
They were talking about the settlement organizations that serve immigrants and refugees. I want to clarify that the settlement organizations funded by the federal government are not giving services to refugee claimants, because they do not fit the eligibility criteria.
The eligibility criteria for immigrants and settlement organizations covers only immigrants and government-assisted refugees, and some of the sponsorship. That's a clarification of what happened at the beginning of the afternoon.
We are very sorry to see that the Canadian government is applying changes and amendments. They are considered in other countries.... Looking at the U.K., Peter Showler explained to you that they provide social services. But in 2003 the U.K. removed social assistance to asylum seekers, and in 2005 the House of Lords ruled that this provision was inhuman and degrading treatment. That means the court found that the cuts didn't deter the asylum seekers from going to the U.K. This is not going to stop refugee claimants from coming to Canada. These provisions of the House of Lords were used by the court when they told the Canadian government to re-institute the interim federal health program.
One of the things that I want to bring is that in my—
The network is actually a provincial network, based in Ontario, of individuals and organizations that are working to address the growing racialization of poverty in Ontario. I'm also the clinic director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, which is also a member of the network.
I want to thank the committee for the opportunity to speak to you today about the amendments. We've also signed the letter that Ms. Rico mentioned earlier. We believe that the amendments as proposed are discriminatory and illogical and contradict the federal government's stated commitment to poverty reduction.
The proposed amendments purport to give provinces the power to impose minimum residency requirements on certain groups of individuals based on refugee or immigration status. While on its face these sections are silent as to which groups of individuals will be excluded from receiving social assistance, the combined effect of the residency requirement and the enumerated groups of individuals who are exempt makes it abundantly clear that the only and real targets of these provisions are refugee claimants.
As many speakers have talked about before, refugees are among the most vulnerable in our society. They often arrive in Canada with nothing, just the shirt on their back, so these provisions, if implemented, will effectively render them ineligible for even the bare minimal amount of support they need for food and shelter. These sections are clearly discriminatory towards refugees, the vast majority of whom are racialized, so they face additional barriers not simply because they're refugees, but also because they are people of colour.
Further, the bill will have a disproportionate impact on refugees who are the most vulnerable, namely women, children, and people with mental health issues or post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also the ones who are most likely to rely on social assistance when they first arrive in Canada.
As many have mentioned, the bill violates international human rights laws that prohibit discrimination. It's contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including section 15, the equality rights, and section 12, the right not to be subjected to cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.
I also want to say that there are other problems with the bill apart from it's being discriminatory. First, it draws an artificial distinction between refugees and refugee claimants while denying assistance to all refugees, including those who will eventually be accepted as protected persons under our refugee determination system.
Second, the provisions are actually self-contradictory; for instance, by exempting only victims of human trafficking who hold a temporary residency permit but not those who apply for a refugee claim when they first arrive in Canada.
The provisions actually purport to give provinces the powers that they say they do not want and will likely not exercise due to the serious concerns about the human rights breach resulting from the provisions. The provinces, by the way, already have rules that will disentitle visitors if someone is concerned that visitors will get assistance. They already have rules around that, so they don't need any new power.
The proposal is touted as a cost-cutting measure without considering the real cost that would be borne by Canadian taxpayers in the form of increased use of homeless shelters, food banks, emergency care, and hospitals when refugees become ill after they become homeless and hungry.
Besides, if the goal is to discourage individuals who don't need protection from coming to Canada, there is actually no evidence that in fact it will do so. Meanwhile, refugees, all refugees, will be painted with the same brush and be affected in the same way.
But at a more fundamental level, we're also opposed to these provisions because they undermine the role of the federal government in poverty reduction. The passage of these sections will signal to Canadians that the Government of Canada does not believe in reducing poverty. It suggests that the government is wanting to download its responsibility onto provinces, territories, and municipalities by eroding the national standard that sets the bare minimum baseline security for all Canadians and by downloading the costs of caring for the most vulnerable among us. While the government's immediate goal might be to deny refugee claimants access to social assistance, this very blunt instrument it has chosen to achieve that goal will, in the long run, hurt all Canadians.
Therefore, we think it's a good idea for this committee to call on the government to remove these sections from Bill .
Well, as you said, there are no policy justifications for any of this. We have rumours. We have notions.
What we do know, primarily from the government's policies around health cuts for refugees—and there has been reference to the Federal Court decision that struck down that provision as unconstitutional—is that this government has traditionally said that fraudulent refugees come because they come for the welfare, the health care, and God knows what.
But I can tell you that at the hearing for the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care v. the government, the government was challenged to provide the evidence. And it had no evidence. That's why Justice Mactavish said that there is no evidence that cuts to refugee health care will deter refugees.
I do want to remind you that I don't just speak as a lawyer and advocate. I was chair of the board and I was a board member. I look at it from all of the various angles. What I can tell you from my 30 years' experience in the field is that refugees do not come when there's no possibility of being accepted.
Australia at one time deterred them. Australia at one time cut back on refugee health care.
You heard Loly Rico refer to the United Kingdom. It cut back severely on refugee assistance. That was only for refugees who did not claim right away.
None of those factors deterred refugees. Refugees are deterred when they think they will not be fairly assessed.