News  Canada to restrict refugee policy

Critics say government overlooks reality in “safe” countries

The Canadian government is preparing important changes to Canada’s refugee policy that critics fear may prevent people suffering persecution from seeking refuge in Canada.

“This is a broken system and it needs to be streamlined,” said the Canadian Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, in a recent statement to the Commons Immigration Committee.

Kenney has repeatedly blamed “false refugees” and “bogus” claimants for overburdening the refugee claimant system, which faces a backlog of 61,000 cases awaiting decision.

Currently, all refugee claimants within Canada have the right to a hearing, presided over by one commissioner from the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). However, refugee claimants wait an average 18 months before their hearing, and some are left in limbo for up to 7 years before knowing their fate.

In order to weed out supposedly “false” refugees, Kenney has proposed favouring UN-approved refugees over refugee claimants in Canada.

In an interview with Embassy Magazine, Kenney alleged that “false” claimants in Canada are “clogging up our asylum system and delaying processing times for real victims of persecution.”

Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), notes an alarming increase in cases of discrimination against refugee claimants within Canada.

“We have heard of many instances where refugees’ access to basic services has been compromised. People, believing that they are bogus claimants, refuse to offer them services,” Dench said.

De Sales Kouassi, a refugee claimant from Cote D’Ivoire, expressed concern about Kenney’s comments.

“The moment when we make such unfounded statements, we push the masses towards rejecting asylum claimants,” Kouassi said.

He added that such comments were irresponsible for a government minister to make.

“Calling people liars when you have no proof is a denouncement.”

Kenney has also speculated about fast-tracking refugee claimants from countries, notably democracies, where citizens are generally thought to be safe from persecution.

Critics charge that this proposal will further undermine Canada’s obligation to protect those fleeing from persecution by rushing these people through the evaluation process.

“We completely oppose any change to the system which will lead to discrimination of claimants based on their country of origin,” Dench said. “Women fleeing gender persecution and those seeking protection based on sexual orientation will be particularly affected by these changes.” Dench noted that such instances of persecution persist in otherwise relatively “safe” countries.

On July 14, the Conservative government imposed visas against citizens of Mexico and the Czech Republic, in an effort to stem refugee claims from countries deemed “safe.” The Harper government has targeted these countries as being major sources of “false” claims, although observers point toward the increasing drug-related violence in Mexico and numerous, well-documented cases of ethnic persecution against the Roma in the Czech Republic.

Sylvain Thibeault, coordinator of Projet Refuge, a temporary residence for refugee claimants in Montreal, fears that the visa requirement has seriously endangered the lives of genuine refugee claimants, who have been pre-emptively denied protection. He argues that IRB commissioners are more qualified to evaluate refugee claims than the minister, who acts on political biases.

“We have to trust those that represent expertise. Kenney represents immigration,” said Thibeault.

Evanivaldo Tinajero, a refugee claimant from Mexico, agreed that Kenney lacks understanding of the situation in Mexico.

“Arriving in Canada one week before the visa, I was one of the last refugee claimants from Mexico. The minister has never lived in Mexico and doesn’t understand the dangers from the government’s association with narco-trafficking,” Tinajero said.

Others point to the lack of staffing in the IRB as the primary source of the backlog. According to the CCR web site, “The current large backlog of claims is caused by the government’s failure to appoint sufficient Board members to make decisions. The government has thus created an incentive for people to make a claim in Canada in order to work here for a few years, even if they expect that their claim will eventually be refused.”

Critics have also expressed concern about another significant policy change implemented July 23. The “Safe Third Country Agreement,” which prohibits potential claimants arriving from the United States from entering Canada, was expanded to previously exempted citizens of countries such as Burundi, Haiti, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Thibeault notes that many of the refugee claimants who have received protection from Canada in the past had passed through the United States first, and that they will no longer be able to seek protection here.

This change has particularly affected francophones who would have sought asylum in Quebec. “Toronto is overflowing with claims, but here we had to close residences,” Thibeault said.

Thibeault explained that although it is often easier to access United States territory, because of language, it is harder for francophones to both make their claim effectively and integrate in the United States.