Tories’ Committment To Refugee Reforms Questioned

Tories' commitment to refugee reforms questioned
Federal budget provides no funding to change 'broken' system for asylum seekers

Campbell Clark
Globe and Mail
March 8, 2010

OTTAWA—-From Monday's Globe and Mail Published on Monday, Mar. 08, 2010 12:00AM EST Last updated on Tuesday, Mar. 09, 2010 3:27AM EST

The Conservatives have mustered the courage to promise a potentially controversial reform to Canada's refugee system. The Liberals have signalled a willingness to support it. Now the question is whether the government will spend the money to close the deal.

For almost a year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has been arguing that change is needed so asylum-seekers will get faster decisions, and false claimants will be discouraged from trying to stay in Canada for years. Wednesday's Throne Speech promised those reforms will go ahead.

But on Thursday, the federal budget provided no funding for the changes, and Liberals who had offered to work with the government on the issue, now say they don't believe the Tories are serious.

“The system is broken. Everybody agrees,” Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua said. “The challenge we're facing with the Conservatives is they've made the announcement they want to have reform, but they obviously have not given the reform the resources it requires to bring it to fruition.”

He said it will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clear out backlogs and revamp the system, and the government can't go ahead without it.

“I'm willing to work with the minister, and I have for months and months,” Mr. Bevilacqua said. “But I have to feel there is a sincerity as well as the money available to get the job done.”

Critics of the refugee-determination system are legion, although there's wide disagreement on how it should be fixed. It has made governments reluctant to make changes, because any reform will spark criticism.

But Canada has angered countries like Mexico and the Czech Republic by slapping visitor-visa requirements on their nationals, in order to stem a flow of refugee claimants, many of whom are rejected.

Mr. Kenney has yet to release details of his proposed reforms, but some elements have emerged.

The Conservatives are expected to try to speed the initial decision on asylum-seekers by having it done by a public servant, rather than a quasi-judicial panel of the Immigration and Refugee Board. That, it is hoped, will help streamline acceptance on the most obviously justified claims and refusal of the flimsiest. Those decisions could be appealed to a panel similar to the existing Immigration and Refugee Board.

The question of which public servants would make that initial decision is key. Refugee advocates argue that if it is handed to Immigration Department or Border Services officers they could be swayed by government direction, rather than the facts of the case, while officials working within the scope of the IRB might have more independence.

The government is considering another idea, creating a list of countries considered safe, like most European nations, and creating a process that would speed decisions on claims from such countries, because most are rejected. Mr. Kenney has floated such suggestions since his earliest days in the Immigration portfolio.