By Peter Showler, Director of the Refugee Forum and former chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada
On February 16, the government tabled Bill C-31 in the House of Commons, the Bill to “protect Canada’s immigration system.” It is a large and complicated omnibus bill on refugee issues that includes Bill C-4, the Anti-Human Smuggling Bill, along with major amendments to the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the legislation that was unanimously passed by Parliament in June 2010, but still awaits implementation. There are additional elements as well, such as the obligatory but unspecified use of biometric information and additional ministerial powers to remove permanent residence status from Canadians who immigrated through the refugee stream.
Before launching specific criticisms, and there will be vigorous public and parliamentary arguments against the bill (a coalition of opponents of the bill has already formed), it is helpful to step back and place the bill within a longer perspective of the government’s refugee policy. The bill is really an accumulation of initiatives that reflect the current government’s fundamental views on Canada’s refugee system.
From the early days of the Reform Party, the Conservatives have preferred Canada’s Refugee Resettlement program to the Inland Refugee system. The first brings refugees recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from overseas locations, principally refugee camps, to Canada as permanent residents. The Inland system assesses the claims of asylum seekers who spontaneously arrive in Canada and, once accepted by the Immigration and Refugee Board, allows them to apply for permanent residence including the sponsorship of family members overseas. It is this second system that has spawned public controversy in the past. However, both systems historically yield approximately the same number of permanent residents per year, about 12,000.
A principal difference in the systems is control. The government can easily control the number and selection criteria of overseas refugees. It can only control the number of spontaneous arrivals through visa restrictions and overseas interdiction efforts such as migration integrity officers at international airports and strict scrutiny of visitor visa applications at Canadian embassies. Another concern, especially of this government, is immigration fraud. The resettlement process moves more slowly than it might, due to government concerns about extended family members of Canadians misusing the process. In Canada, historically, about 45% of claimants are accepted as refugees and the removal of refused claimants has proven to be an intractable problem. Excessive removal delays (in the range of four to six years), combined with alternative humanitarian grounds for remaining in Canada due to long-term residence, do lead to potential abuses of the refugee system.
That is a legitimate policy concern.
However, the government has a powerful underlying moral view of the international asylum process that has become obsessive and rhetorical in its pursuit of fraudulent claims. It equates refused claims with “bogus” claims, and alleges claims from entire countries like Mexico and Hungary lack any legal merit, although the Immigration and Refugee Board accepts a significant number of claims from both countries (17% and 8%, respectively). The government has also offered up an extravagant construction of the notion of “refugee queues.” It maintains that the good asylum seekers faithfully go to refugee camps and wait their turn while the not-good refugees use false documents and get on boats to come to Canada. This is all nonsense, of course. There are no refugee queues, many asylum seekers can’t reach refugee camps and are trapped in countries that do not accept UNHCR refugee status. Moreover, the UN Refugee Convention allows asylum seekers to use fraudulent documents to seek refugee protection.
It is this moral perspective, that refugees who come directly to Canada to seek protection are somehow suspect and second-tier refugees, that somehow justifies the extraordinary punishments contained in Bill C-31. Refugee claimants who arrive in groups will be subjected to mandatory detention for up to a year even if they are victims of civil war and human rights violations; accepted refugees will not be permitted to begin sponsorship of their families for five years after their acceptance, resulting in a six-to-eight-year separation from their families abroad. That morality is also the justification for unreasonably shortening time lines for the new refugee claim process and for denying an appeal to some claimants.
The debates on C-31 will rage in parliament and the public forum over the next few months. Regardless of the rationality of their arguments, if opponents of the bill hope to make headway against the force of the government’s parliamentary majority, they would do well to speak to the moral perspectives that underpin the bill as well as to the human consequences of its particular provisions.