stand up for justice: say no to bill c-11

At last night's meeting of the War Resisters Support Campaign, we discussed the government's proposed changes to Canada's refugee system, which are posted here on the CIC website.

There are many problematic points. This news release from the Canadian Council for Refugees lists some of them.

  • The so-called safe countries list. Asylum is given to individuals, not to countries. A person from a supposedly safe country may meet the criteria for refugee status, and her case must be heard fairly, and then judged - not judged first because of her citizenship. Wanda Yamamoto, CCR President, says: "[T]he government is proposing a two-tier system, which denies some claimants access to the appeal based on nationality."

    This can especially impact women fleeing abuse and people making refugee claims based on sexual orientation or sexual identity. CCR: "In many countries that otherwise seem fairly peaceful and "safe", there can be serious problems of persecution on these grounds. Yet, these claimants will not get access to an appeal, as would other claimants."

    Note that the government has not and will not release any such list before the House of Commons votes on this legislation. Obviously Harper wants to avoid an outcry from both communities in Canada when countries are on the list (Mexico, Hungary, and of course the US) and from particular countries that will not make the list, leading to potential trade and diplomatic issues (China, Saudi Arabia, and others).

    In other words, they want the House of Commons to approve this bill with a portion of it already redacted. There's that legendary transparency again.

  • First decision-makers would be civil servants - departmental employees who by definition are not independent. CCR: "Canada has become a model for countries around the world with its current system of initial refugee decisions made by a fully independent board member – this important asset would be lost under the government's proposal. Systems using civil servants in other countries have proved unsuccessful, with a large number of cases overturned on appeal."

  • Hearings within 60 days of initial claim. This might sound like a positive development, but the realities of many refugee claimants' lives defies this timetable. CCR: "While many refugees will welcome an early hearing, for some it will represent a serious disadvantage, notably refugees who have experienced serious trauma such as torture, refugees who cannot have the relevant documentation sent to Canada quickly enough and refugees who need to build trust in order to be able to testify freely...".

  • Reduced access to humanitarian and compassionate (H&C) applications. The CIC claims that filing an H&C application suspends a claimant's potential removal from Canada, but this is not true.

  • The introduction of third parties to help remove and resettle failed refugee claimants. Bounty hunters? An "Assisted Voluntary Returns" program is not a bad idea in itself, but its successful and fair implementation would need a lot of oversight and consultation. The government is not suggesting giving people whose refugee claims are rejected money to resettle. They are suggesting giving other people money to supposedly help them resettle. The potential pitfalls should be obvious.

  • The addition of a Refugee Appeal Division is welcome; the refugee-advocacy community has been suggesting this for years. However, under the government's proposal, claimants from countries on the government's own safe-country list would not have access to this appeals process. Again, a two-tiered system is fundamentally unfair.

  • We need consultations! CCR: "The proposals contain some interesting aspects, such as an Assisted Voluntary Returns Program, something that the CCR has long recommended. However, there needs to be a meaningful period of consultation and openness from the government to changes. Unusually for this kind of legislative reform, the government has not consulted interested groups such as the CCR before tabling, so the need for broad consultation by Parliament is even greater."

  • Minister Kenney is still prejudicing the entire system. CCR: "The CCR regrets the government's continuing use of language such as "bogus claims" is extremely damaging. Not everyone who makes a claim needs protection but that doesn't make them "abusers". They may have compelling reasons for leaving their country, even though they may not meet the narrow refugee definition.

    "Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in society and are easy targets for attack, as non-citizens in a foreign country. Disparaging labels, especially coming from government, profoundly damage public perception of refugees, and non-citizens in general."

  • Remember where this backlog of refugee cases came from: the Harper government created it. They have purposely under-funded the system and not replaced decision makers whose terms ended. This is typical neo-con strategy: manufacture a crisis, then move in with the "solution", which happens to dovetail perfectly with your agenda.

    Thomas Walkom writes in the Star:
    ...what Kenny didn't mention when he introduced his reforms Tuesday is that two-thirds of this backlog stems from his government's refusal to appoint enough adjudicators to hear cases.

    This isn't my opinion. It's that of Auditor General Sheila Fraser, who reported in 2009 that the government's decision to leave unfilled about one-third of the positions in the quasi-judicial Immigration and Refugee Board had caused the backlog to double.

    Since then, the backlog has tripled.

    . . . .

    Nothing is easy about the refugee system. On the one hand, there really are persecuted people in the world who need asylum. And, as one judge noted two years ago, after ordering the refugee board to re-examine the case of a Mexican woman denied asylum, the fact that a foreign government claims to respect human rights does not necessarily mean it does so.

    Yet on the other, there are frauds whose false claims both clog the refugee system and diminish its legitimacy.

    The trick for any government is to strike the right balance.

    Kenny claims his bill does just that. It does not. Like previous reforms, it would set deadlines for dealing with refugee cases. But it offers no hint as to how these deadlines might be met. It would take apart a system that (except for the government's failure to staff its own refugee board) has been improving and, instead, replace it with a more arbitrary one.

    More to the point, it would give cabinet far too big a role in deciding which countries produce genuine refugees. That's a power no government – particularly this one – should have.

    Canada's refugee system - like its health care system - actually works beautifully under the proper conditions. It needs only to be properly funded in order to meet its tremendous potential.

    Many, if not most, Canadians know this. The CIC commissioned Harris-Decima to hold a series of focus groups on this issue. Despite what you may hear from the neo-con media, the results really didn't go their way. The majority of Canadians want Canada to be a safe haven for refugees and believe the system should err on the side of asylum, since to deny refuge can have such very serious consequences on real people's lives. Some results of the surveys - and an analysis of the Government's public relations battle on this issue - are here in Embassy magazine.

    We need citizen, MP, and expert input into these proposed changes. In addition, the Harper Government must remember that Canada has obligations under international law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has already warned Canada about a two-tiered system.

    If you're still reading, here's a letter a friend of mine sent to the leaders of all the opposition parties, cc'd to all opposition MPs.

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    Dear Member of Parliament,

    I am writing to you today to urge you to support holding Committee Hearings on Bill C-11 before it proceeds to second reading.

    I am extremely concerned that the Conservative government has introduced a major overhaul of the refugee system that will end up doing enormous harm to refugee applicants and deny them a fair hearing.

    The proposed legislation calls for an initial hearing for claimants 8 days after they apply for refugee protection. It's fundamentally unfair to expect that people who are trying to escape persecution would have all of their documentation and information ready in such a short period of time. Many claimants are escaping persecution, torture, abuse, and other horrors and I don't think that Jason Kenney can say that he is standing up for "genuine refugees" when he is denying them enough time to fairly put their case forward.

    As well, creating a two-tier system based on the country of origin of the applicant is contrary to the principle that refugee protection is granted to the individual, not the country.

    I also urge you to speak out against Mr. Kenney's constant reference to "bogus refugee claimants". Even the Harris Decima focus group report which was done for the Conservatives shows that Canadians want a system which errs on the side of fairness to applicants. Mr. Kenney is trying to shift public opinion so people will think that the problems with the refugee system are the result of an influx of "bogus" claimants, rather than his own government's refusal to fully staff the Immigration and Refugee Board.

    It is when the most vulnerable people in society are under attack that we need courageous voices to stand up for what is right and just.

    Yours truly, etc.

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    Oppose Bill C-11! Support Bill C-440!
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