Fixing the Refugee Mess

Fixing the refugee mess (Macleans, Dec 16, 2002)

Daniel Stoffman

The best way to understand what is wrong with Canada's refugee policy is to compare it with a truly compassionate one. Norway's program is all about helping the poorest refugees , the millions stranded in refugee camps in the Third World.

How poor are these people? A fund-raising appeal mailed to Canadians by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN's refugee agency, asks potential donors for $30 to provide four blankets to keep a family's children warm. Or $60 to buy a shelter kit including wooden beams, plastic sheeting, a hammer and nails.

Norway, with a population less than that of Greater Toronto, gave $84 million last year to help meet such basic needs. Canada gave a measly $51.2 million.

On the other hand, Norway's acceptance rate for people who show up at its doorstep and ask for sanctuary within Norway itself is a minuscule two per cent compared with Canada's lofty 58-per-cent approval rate of in-Canada refugee claims.

Norway has decided to focus its humanitarian efforts on the vast majority of refugees: those who have neither the means nor the desire to relocate to a rich country. Some 20 million people one out of every 300 humans on the planet fall into this category. That number includes refugees forced to flee their homelands and others displaced within their own countries.

Canada has made the opposite choice. In contrast to its tight-fisted attitude to refugees in the camps, it spends lavishly on the comparatively small group 44,000 last year — who show up on their own to claim asylum in Canada. Dealing with refugee determination and integration costs Ottawa about $100 million a year, while millions more are spent on legal aid, health care, dental care, welfare, and other support programs for in-Canada refugee claimants.

Canada's unique generosity to uninvited refugee claimants creates what migration experts call a pull factor that entices economic migrants out of their homes because they see our system as a way to gain quick entry into a developed country. It also gives a big boost to criminal gangs, which charge up to $50,000 a head to smuggle migrants into Canada.

No one country can help all refugees. The goal, therefore, should be to do the most good for the greatest number of the neediest refugees. Norway achieves this. Canada, by encouraging dubious claims here and shortchanging the millions stranded in camps, doesn't even attempt to.

No reform of our system is possible without a recognition that the millions in the camps and the thousands who make their own way to Canada are two distinctly different groups. The people in the camps are desperately poor, most are women and children, and most want to return home. Those who arrive in Canada on their own are mostly men who do not want to return home. Many arrive without any identity documents, often having discarded those used during their voyage. Some wind up as indentured slaves to repay the criminals who brought them here. Others are wealthy, including the likes of Lai Changxing, the gambler and businessman who is claiming refugee status in Canada to avoid facing charges of smuggling and bribery in China.

Both Norway and Canada decide claims on the basis of the Geneva Convention which defines a refugee as someone with a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group, or political opinion. Norway rejects most claims because it interprets the Geneva Convention strictly.

Canada accepts most because its arbiters members of the Immigration and Refugee Board employ the world's broadest interpretation. For example, in 2000, Canada recognized 1,600 Pakistanis and 2,000 Sri Lankans as refugees while the rest of the world together approved only 500 claims from each of these countries.

Other refugee-receiving countries routinely reject claims on the basis that the claimant comes from a safe country or could have found safety simply by moving elsewhere in his own country. The IRB does not apply these criteria which helps explain why its acceptance rate is the world's highest.

In addition to the refugees who make it to Canada on their own, another group is chosen in the camps by Canadian officials and brought here to start a new life. This is a cost-efficient way to resettle refugees in Canada because such people, having attained refugee status before their arrival, do not need lawyers or IRB hearings. During the 1980s, Canada resettled about 200,000 refugees in this manner. However, now that its focus has changed to the IRB-approved refugees, the government brings in fewer people from the camps about 13,000 a year.

Every independent analysis of Canada's refugee system comes to the same conclusion we've got it backwards. We are spending too much on refugee claimants in Canada and not enough on the real refugees in the camps. If our in-country system were less inviting, fewer people would take advantage of it and the money saved could be diverted to the Third World where it belongs.

We cannot afford to waste scarce protection resources on those who should be applying for our immigration programs, concluded a 1997 report to the federal government, Not Just Numbers , prepared by an independent advisory group that studied the immigration and refugee system. Not Just Numbers recommended that the IRB, whose members include defeated political candidates, ex-party workers, and refugee advocates, be scrapped in favour of a new Protection Agency staffed by professional experts who would apply the same criteria to refugee selection in Canada as abroad.

More recently, Concordia University political scientist Stephen Gallagher, in a report last year for the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, made the same recommendation. Calling the current system dysfunctional, he wrote that aiding a large number of refugee claimants to become Canadian accomplishes little, if anything, for the masses left behind.

Another prominent voice for reform is that of former ambassador William Bauer who had long experience with refugees while serving in Southeast Asia. Bauer, winner of the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award, later served on the IRB but quit because of pressure within the organization to approve claims. Now writing a book on the international asylum system, he calls Canada's policies massive corruption of the noble concept of political asylum.

This system is perpetuated because it has been captured by those who profit from it. The lawyers are well-organized while ordinary Canadians who want a just refugee system are not. Moreover, federal politicians love the IRB because of its $100,000-a-year jobs for party stalwarts.

When Roslyn Kunin, one of the authors of the Not Just Numbers report, told a group of Toronto lawyers of the commission's plans for reforming the refugee system one of them blurted out: You can't do that. I have to pay for my swimming pool. In the peculiar world view of those who defend the current system, it is anti-refugee to propose reforms that might result in less money for Canadian lawyers to build swimming pools and more to pay for water buckets and medical supplies in African refugee camps.

Defenders of the status quo object to any reform that might stem the tide of fee-producing claimants to Canada. That is why they oppose the recently concluded Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the U.S. Under this agreement, people already in the U.S. who show up at the Canadian border to claim refugee status will be told to make their claims in the U.S. instead.

U.S. expert Mark Krikorian calls the Safe Third Country principle a morally necessary part of any asylum system. That is because a refugee claimant is asking a country to forego its right to decide who to admit in order to offer immediate protection to someone in desperate need of it. But countries cannot be expected to make this sacrifice of their sovereignty unless the need is genuine.

Asylum is analogous to offering a drowning man a berth in your lifeboat, and a genuinely desperate man grabs at the first lifeboat that comes his way, writes Krikorian in an essay published by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. A person who seeks to pick and choose among lifeboats is, by definition, not seeking immediate protection. Without the Safe Third Country concept, any so-called asylum' system is really nothing more than an alternative avenue of immigration.

Some of the people who make their own way to Canada are genuine refugees and have a right to Canada's protection. But the inescapable fact, proven by the much lower acceptance rates of all other countries, is that the majority are not refugees by international standards. If they are not refugees by international standards, they are not refugees period because it is beyond belief that the dysfunctional IRB is the only organization in the world that knows how to identify a refugee.

It is time for Canada to decide what it wishes its refugee program to achieve. If the goal is to perpetuate a lucrative legal industry in Canada and allow the smuggling gangs to thrive, then the current system is ideal. But if we want to do the most good for the largest number of the world's neediest refugees, then a drastic overhaul of our system is essential and long overdue.