Streamlining Refugees Is Sure To Backfire

National Post, January 28, 2002

Streamlining refugees is sure to backfire

by James Bissett,

Immigration lawyers welcome the news that the Immigration Refugee Board (IRB) is considering a streamlined system for dealing with refugee claimants. This was to be expected, since faster processing will translate into faster payment to the lawyers by the government's legal aid services. International human smugglers will also welcome the news, since the faster their smuggled clients receive refugee status, the more clients they will be able to attract. Canadians, though, should not be so happy about this promised new efficiency on the part of the IRB.

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 — despite all of its bluster and the introduction of controversial security legislation — the federal government has adamantly refused to acknowledge that our overly generous asylum system poses a major threat to Canada's security and the security of our American neighbour. Last year, more than 44,000 asylum seekers arrived in Canada. Most of them were smuggled into the country by international criminal organizations.

When these people arrive they are without documents and so we know nothing about their background or personal history. Nevertheless, we do know from previous experience that among them can be criminals and terrorists. In normal times, this would not be a satisfactory situation. After the events of Sept. 11, it is inexcusable.

Even more alarming is the knowledge that since the attacks against New York and the Pentagon last September, more than 15,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada. Of these, close to 2,500 have come from terrorist-producing countries: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, Algeria, Albania and Afghanistan. An additional 870 have arrived from Sri Lanka, almost all of them undoubtedly Tamils. Many of these could be members or supporters of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE is one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world and is banned in Britain and the United States. Canada finally designated the LTTE a terrorist organization in November of last year — only after U.S. President George W. Bush declared the war on terrorism.

It is ironic that during Deputy Prime Minister John Manley's recent visit to Pakistan, he urged Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani President, to hand over to the Indian authorities those responsible for the attack on the Indian Parliament so that they might be brought to justice. Mr. Manley must be aware that his own government is powerless to remove convicted terrorists from Canada.

The reality is that when an illegal entrant arrives on Canadian soil and claims to be a refugee, there is very little chance that the individual will be removed. Unfortunately, this is especially true of serious criminals and terrorists because their removal frequently means they would be required to face justice in their homeland. In some cases. this could mean the death penalty.

Any thought of removal in such cases runs up against formidable obstacles. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies not only to Canadian citizens, but also to anyone on Canadian territory, whether in Canada legally or not. In addition to Charter protection, even the most outlandish allegation that the individual might be mistreated or tortured will guarantee months if not years of litigation. After several years of reviews, appeals and rehearings, the individual's own country often will refuse to accept the person back. Canada has been stuck with a number of these cases.

Other countries learned long ago that it is essential to prevent illegal entrants from accessing the refugee determination system if they are not coming directly from the country where they claim persecution. They must be stopped at the point of entry and quickly removed. The most common way to do this is to refuse access to people who are arriving from “safe third countries.” These are countries that are signatories to the UN Refugee Convention, are democratic, follow the rule of law and have a good human rights record.

The rationale is that genuine refugees fearing persecution will apply for refuge in the first safe country of arrival. Unless they have a good reason why they could not have applied in that first country, they are refused access and returned to the country from which they came. Article 31 of the UN Convention makes a distinction between imposing a penalty on refugees entering illegally who come directly from a territory where they were threatened and those who enter illegally but are not arriving directly from the country of alleged persecution. Thus the Convention itself recognizes that difference.

Canada has refused to implement the “safe third country” provision even though it has been incorporated in our legislation since 1989 and despite the fact that almost all of the people entering illegally and asking for asylum come from countries that protect refugees as well as we do. Consequently, Canada has become a favourite target of human traffickers and a safe haven for terrorists. It will get worse, unless the new Immigration Minister, Denis Coderre, has more concern for the national interest than his predecessors have shown.

James Bissett is a former Canadian ambassador and was head of the Canadian Immigration Service from 1985 to 1990.