Why Our Refugee System Stays Broken

The following is an Op-Ed written by James Bissett for The National Post. Mr Bissett was the Director of Canada's Immigration Service from 1985-90.


Why Our Refugee System Stays Broken

The recent controversy over Canada imposing visa requirements on travelers arriving from the Czech Republic and Mexico has revealed flaws in our dysfunctional refugee system. It also has disclosed a deeper and disturbing trend in the way the democratic process has been working in our country: For the last 25 years, Canada's refugee policy has been driven and monopolized by special interest groups.

All of our political parties know the current policy is working against Canada's national interest. All of the parties know the refugee system is dysfunctional. All of them know reform is essential. But none of them have been willing to do anything about the problem.

Our flawed refugee policy has caused our southern border to become effectively militarized. It has damaged bilateral relations with friendly nations, and has hurt our international trade and tourist industry. It has thrown our ability to secure our borders and function as a sovereign nation into question.

As a nation, we no longer are able to decide who should be allowed entry into our country, nor are we able to remove those we deem undesirable — including convicted terrorists.

We are one of the few countries in the world that allows anyone from any country to enter simply because they claim to be persecuted. For example, in 2002, citizens of 152 different countries applied for refugee status in Canada — including people from the United States, Sweden, Switzerland and other democratic countries. Why has this nonsense been permitted to continue?

The reason is because all of our political parties know that Canadians know very little about refugee policy. The policy is complicated, and usually doesn't figure as a major election issue. So this leaves the field open to a powerful refugee lobby composed of full-time refugee-industry advocates — such as the Canadian Council For Refugees, immigration lawyers and consultants — who make thousands of dollars defending asylum seekers. They are supported by a multitude of NGOs, which receive millions of dollars in government funding to care for and help asylum seekers. They have a stake in making sure the system remains bloated and dysfunctional.

The average Canadian doesn't know the difference between a bogus asylum seeker and a real refugee. Even the media falsely refer to people arriving in Canada and applying for refugee status as “refugees” — even though most don't suffer any form of persecution in their country of origin.

The determination of whether a claimant is a real refugee is decided by an impartial Refugee Board. During the adjudication process (which can take years), however, those who arrive receive generous welfare payments, housing, free medical care and free legal representation.

The numbers of those arriving are significant — well over 700,000 since 1985 — and none of these so-called refugees has been pre-screened for criminality, security or health. Many are smuggled aboard aircraft, and arrive without legitimate documents. Few are detained. Most are released and politely asked to appear for their refugee hearing. Currently, there are over 60,000 asylum claimants waiting for such a hearing.

The costs are high. The Immigration Department estimates that one asylum seeker costs the Canadian taxpayer roughly $30,000 dollars per year; and by far the majority of asylum seekers remain in Canada for several years.

Should their claim be refused, there is little likelihood they will be sent home. They can seek leave to appeal to the Federal Court; and if refused, there are a number of further reviews and delays that can be exercised. The result is that the number of rejected asylum seekers end up settling in Canada.

This farce has continued for almost a quarter of a century. Yet any attempt to reform the system, such as the Conservative government's current, tentative initiative, is met with a storm of protest from the above-listed usual suspects. Typically, the refugee industry is backed up by opposition parties, whose opportunistic spokesmen cynically accuse reform advocates of racism.

The outcry over the Mexican and Czech visa imposition has been overwrought, but it has at least brought the issue of refugee reform to the forefront of Canadian politics. The Prime Minister has been forced to acknowledge the system needs fixing.

The first step toward reform should be to announce a list of countries that are considered “safe” for ostensible refugees, and to declare that people coming from those countries are ineligible from submitting asylum claims. Such a step has been taken in most European countries, and it has stopped the flow of human smuggling and so-called “asylum shopping.” It is time Canada followed suit.