Ottawa Readies Fast-Tracking Of Refugee Claims From ‘Safe’ Nations

Ottawa readies fast-tracking of refugee claims from 'safe' nations

By Norma Greenaway
Canwest News Service
August 16, 2009

OTTAWA The Harper government is readying for Parliament a package of reforms that for the first time could have Canada fast-tracking refugee claimants from countries where citizens are generally thought to be safe from persecution.

Though the proposal has yet to get the final nod from cabinet, Martin Collacott, a former Canadian diplomat who specializes in immigration issues, says such a move is long overdue.

“We are the only country in the world that will consider a (claim) from someone coming from the United States, from the Philippines, from Thailand, from South Korea,” said Collacott, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

The proposal envisions senior immigration officers hearing the refugee claimants from safe countries more quickly, thereby easing the load on the Immigration and Refugee Board. There would still be an appeal option, but it would be more streamlined than at present and would not necessarily involve another hearing.

As it stands now, it takes an average of 17 months before a claim is heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board. Once the board makes a decision, claimants can launch appeals that can last for years before the claimant is finally deported.

“Essentially, an unsuccessful claimant who is determined to game the system can stay in Canada for several years with a work permit and/or welfare benefits, and this fundamentally undermines the fairness of our immigration system,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said.

The stepped-up talk of reform follows a months-long, carefully orchestrated campaign, led by Kenney, to focus attention on a refugee system that almost everyone agrees needs repair.

The campaign picked up steam last month, when Canada slapped visa requirements on visitors from Mexico and the Czech Republic, and climaxed when Prime Minister Stephen Harper sang a “blame Canada” tune while personally explaining to Mexican President Felipe Calderon why the Canadian government was forced to resort to such an unpopular move.

Contending that Canadian refugee law encourages bogus refugee claims, Harper called on Parliament to deal with the problem so that bona fide refugees are not penalized.

Since the Harper government's actions, the flow of refugee claimants from Mexico and the Czech Republic has slowed to a trickle, while the push within Canada for a less-antagonizing fix appears to be gaining steam.

Reforming the refugee process, however, is a politically explosive issue that has all parties on edge for fear of being painted as anti-refugee and abandoning Canada's tradition of protecting the persecuted.

The selling job is even tougher in a minority government that could fall at anytime in the coming months.

The sensitivity explains why Kenney, who has led the party's political outreach to Canada's immigrant communities, is playing his cards close to the chest while searching for possible parliamentary allies. At this point, the Liberals look like his best shot.

Though not yet committing to anything, Maurizio Bevilacqua, the party's immigration critic, said the Liberals are open to reasonable reforms that will speed the process.

“The status quo is not an option for us,” he said.

The opposition blames the backlog of more than 60,000 claimants on the Conservatives' slowness in filling Immigration and Refugee Board vacancies.

Although the pace of appointments has picked up since Kenney became minister last fall, 14 or the 127 IRB spots 11 per cent are still vacant.

Refugee advocates and New Democrats strongly oppose the idea of fast-tracking claimants from safe countries. They say naming safe countries will provoke a political firestorm at home and abroad and that there are better ways to improve the system.

They urge a crackdown on fraudulent immigration consultants who charge huge amounts of money to get bogus refugees through the door and beefed up resources to ensure that rejected claimants are deported on a timely basis once they have exhausted their appeals.

Olivia Chow, NDP immigration critic, said some remain in Canada for years before the government gets around to deporting them.

“It's the deportation system that's a mess,” she said. “It's not the refugee determination system.”

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says a safe-country list works against genuine refugees from those countries.

“They start with one hand tied behind their back because the system is prejudiced against them from the beginning,” she said.

“Practically speaking, they don't have real chance, because they don't have enough time (in a fast-track system) to make their case properly. If you are dealing with people who are survivors of torture, sexual assault, they need time to gather the confidence to talk about their experiences. You don't blurt that out on the first day.”