Canada’s Refugee Policy Is Too Generous And It Costs Us Dearly

Canada's refugee policy is too generous and it costs us dearly

By Martin Collacott
Special to The Vancouver Sun
November 6, 2009

Re: Australia's harsh approach to refugees, Nov. 3

Australian human rights lawyer Greg Barnes has strongly advised Canada not to treat asylum seekers as harshly as he says his country does. In criticizing Australia, however, it is important to recognize the quandary the government there faces as it tries to deal with increasing numbers of refugee claimants.

Soon after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took office in 2007 he announced he would ease up on some of the restrictions on asylum seekers put in place by his predecessor, John Howard, following a major influx of boat people at the beginning of the decade.

After the measures taken by Howard had drastically reduced the numbers arriving, they rebounded dramatically with Rudd's determination to show that Australia is a kinder, gentler place under his watch. Thirty seven boatloads of persons seeking refugee status have arrived in Australian waters so far this year — exceeding the total for all of the previous seven years.

This was too much even for the Rudd government. In mid-October, when a boatload of Sri Lankan Tamils heading for Australia — but still in international waters — indicated they were in trouble and needed assistance, an Australian customs vessel, Oceanic Viking, came to their rescue and took them on board. But instead of taking them to Australia, the government decided they should be returned to Indonesia, where they had been living for several years. Since arriving at an Indonesian port, however, the asylum seekers have refused to disembark from the Ocean Viking and insist on being taken to Australia.

A major problem this poses for the Australia is one that we also have in Canada: Once asylum seekers reach its territory and are able to make refugee claims, many will find ways of staying indefinitely even if they don't have a good case by international standards.

As an example, one of John Howard's immigration ministers pointed out that, while only 10 to 15 per cent of Iraqis who fled to Jordan were assessed by the United Nations as being genuine Convention refugees (i.e., in need of permanent resettlement rather than requiring only assistance until they could return to their homelands), if they managed to make to Australia to make a refugee claim, they had a 97-per-cent chance of success.

The minister attributed this remarkable discrepancy to the fact that the Australian system for processing asylum seekers had stretched the definition of who was a genuine refugee well beyond what was intended in the UN Convention.

Both Canada and Australia are among the world leaders when it comes to resettling people from abroad whom the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has determined to be refugees in need of permanent resettlement. Last year, Canada accepted 10,800 and Australia 11,000 — out of a global total of 88,000 — which in both cases is far more than either of our shares in per capita terms.

Unless we maintain some semblance of order in how genuine refugees are allowed to enter our territories — and this may involve tough measures in dealing with self-selected asylum seekers — Australia and Canada can expect to see increasing numbers arriving on our shores.

Martin Collacott is a former Canadian high commissioner in Sri Lanka.

He lives in Vancouver.