By Peter Showler, Director of the Refugee Forum and former chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada
When parliament passed the Balanced Refugee Reform Act in June 2010, a small but positive government initiative escaped notice during the debate over fast versus fair procedures. When the government recently announced that implementation of the new refugee system would be postponed until June 2012, this same initiative inexplicably caught the attention of right wing commentators on refugee policy, notably Tom Godfrey of the Toronto Sun and the Fraser Institute.
The proposal is the Assisted Voluntary Returns (AVR) program and it works like this.
After a refugee claim is denied by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), the government will pay travel expenses and a small resettlement stipend to refused claimants who promptly and voluntarily return to their home country. The maximum resettlement payment, through a third party agency, would be $2,000.
The program could save Canada hundreds of thousands of dollars by avoiding complicated involuntary removals over a long period of time. The program helps claimants to return to their country promptly, without attracting the attention of potentially hostile authorities and allows them some modest support to re-establish themselves.
Despite the misgivings of the Fraser Institute, AVR programs have been successfully employed by 18 European countries for as long as 25 years. Many offer far more generous resettlement funds. The UK gives up to $7,500 in resettlement funds. The Swiss provided millions to assist the return of refugees to the former Yugoslavia.
Critics of the AVR program allege that the program will reward frivolous refugee claims and will encourage additional fraudulent claims. The allegations reveal a complete failure to understand the motivations of refugee claimants. Not all refused claims are fraudulent. In fact, most claimants have valid personal reasons for claiming refugee protection. Their claims are frequently denied for legal reasons that often confound claimants.
For example, although their fear of death or serious injury may be genuine, the IRB will often decide that state protection is available, that the claimant would be safe in another part of their country or that the threat against them is part of a wider pattern of general criminality. Without debating the merits of the legal arguments, the point is that such claimants seek refugee protection with good intentions and deserve some humanitarian support to resettle in their own country particularly when their prompt departure also benefits Canada.
The more extravagant criticism, that migrants will come to Canada to make refugee claims in order to collect the resettlement stipend, is beyond ludicrous. The cost of getting to Canada, including the necessity of obtaining false documents, far exceeds the modest benefit of $2,000. It also does not recognize the human cost of cultural and psychological dislocation endured by most refugee claimants. Whether accepted or not, the act of seeking refugee protection usually entails great sacrifices on the part of refugee claimants and their families; such sacrifices are a reliable mark of their desperate need to escape whether it be from persecution, discrimination or poverty.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) should be commended for its initiative. If there is any criticism of the program, it is that it is too timid. For the first four years, the AVR program will be a pilot program limited to refused claimants from the Toronto region who will be returning to source countries within the Americas. Given the success of other AVR programs and the enthusiastic endorsement of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a more robust program with a global reach would be fully justified. Undoubtedly the government’s caution can be linked to the type of uninformed and predictable criticism that the Fraser Institute has levelled against the program.
AVR programs are a good idea. They are smart money well spent that benefit both refused claimants and Canada. Any moral ambiguity about the programs only arises if the refugee claim process itself is arbitrary or unreliable. If negative refugee decisions accurately reflect the evidence and the law, many failed claimants, although their hopes to remain in Canada have been dashed, will reluctantly accept the decision and return home voluntarily.
As a final stage in a refugee claim system with integrity, AVR programs are worthy of our support.
- Refugee Forum
- Fast, Fair and Final: Reforming Canada’s Refugee System
- A fast and fair refugee system: a slogan or a reality?
- New project helps claimants navigate new refugee system
- Implementation of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act delayed until June 2012
- Expect a stormy session around refugee policy in Ottawa