Canadian minister of citizenship and immigration Jason Kenney announced an overhaul of the government’s system for determining refugee status last week. The proposed changes focus on expediting the asylum claims process, deporting failed claimants as quickly as possible, and reducing the costs of processing claims.
The changes reflect Kenney’s statement in an interview with CTV to “give faster protection to real refugees while sending the message to bogus claimants that you’re not going to be able to use the system in Canada anymore.”
The overhaul would significantly shorten the decision-making period for refugee claimants. Government appointees would screen initial asylum claims before their claims reach the independent Immigration and Refugee Board. The minister would also have the legislative authority to categorize countries as safe or unsafe countries of origin. This designation would restrict the ability of claimants from “safe” countries to appeal a rejection.
The current system involves a 19-month wait with about 60,000 backlogged claims. Overall, the ministry has said the reforms would reduce the cost per failed claim from $50,000 to $29,000.
Critics have taken issue with Kenney’s priorities for reform. A press release from the advocacy group Canadian Council for Refugees criticized Kenney’s continuing use of terms like “bogus” with regard to claims as “extremely damaging,” and went on to add that “not everyone who makes a claim needs protection but that doesn’t make them ‘abusers’.”
Janet Dench, executive director of the Council, characterized the bill as overly reductionist. “The bill is based on the assumption that it’s clear and easy to tell between those who need protection and those who don’t. Our position is that refugee determination is quite difficult.”
Dench said the government is trying to group claimants on the basis of nationality and other characteristics, while refugee status should be determined on a case-by-case basis, especially to account for discrimination in countries otherwise deemed respectful of human rights.
“The minister is giving himself the power to declare some places safe. In the case of gays and lesbians in places like the Caribbean, these are often claims that are successful although they come from countries that are considered safe and peaceful. They won’t get the opportunity to appeal that claim,” said Dench.
Melanie Carkner, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said in an email that Canada’s current asylum system was “crippled by long delays” and a “cumbersome process” that resulted in claims taking years to resolve.
“The proposed reforms are balanced and fair and would increase support for those in need of protection while discouraging many of the unfounded claims that now burden the system,” said Carkner.
Moreover, claimants would be restricted from filing an appeals case for one year after receiving the decision on their application. The proposal to enforce timely removals, however, would see most failed claimants deported before that time is up.
Stephen Green, chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s Citizenship and Immigration Law Section, acknowledged that under these time restrictions, claimants would not have adequate time to file humanitarian claims.
The government has also proposed a pilot program to offer financial assistance and incentives to those about to be deported, and $54 million for a resettlement assistance program that helps refugees from camps and urban areas throughout the world settle in Canada.
NDP MP and citizenship and immigration critic Olivia Chow echoed many of the concerns.
“The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has stated that even in democracies there are still grounds for persecution based on gender or sexual identity,” said a statement on Chow’s web site. “For example, Mali may be a democratic country, but they still practice genital mutilation. We simply can’t assume a country is free from all forms of persecution.”
Even under the current system, there have been cases where those not granted refugee status have returned to their country of origin only to face the threats they had originally fled.
In 2007, Enrique Villegas, a gay Mexican citizen whose application for refugee status had been denied four years before, was found dead in his Mexico City apartment. Last year a deported 24-year-old anonymous Mexican woman known only as “Grise” was murdered after having twice been denied refugee status in Canada.
Previous efforts to expedite the refugee claims process included visa requirements for Mexican and Czech citizens starting July 2009, in a bid to keep potential refugee claimants from entering Canada for economic reasons.
Canada’s refugee acceptance rate typically hovers between 40 and 50 per cent, while the U.K. and France, whose immigration models these reforms resemble, both have accepted about 30 per cent in recent years.
“It should be noted that only certain provisions in the proposed bill would take immediate effect if the bill is passed,” said Carkner. “Most changes would occur 12 to 18 months after the bill receives Royal Assent.” Green noted that while the reforms do address current problems, he was concerned that power will be in the hands of ministers and not open to legal scrutiny.
“The word ‘safe’ is not in the legislation, so we don’t know how a country will get on that list. Will it be political reasons that get a country on that list?” asked Green. “The government has recently passed laws that are bare bones and the meat is in the regulations. We just saw a skeleton and we don’t know how things will really operate.”