Reining In Refugee Chaos

Our latest bulletin : “Reining In Refugee Chaos” was written by retired ambassador Martin Collacott.

In addition, we are providing links to two columns which comment on last week's changes to refugee regulations :


Reining In Refugee Chaos

Martin Collacott, National Post
Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has presented Canadians with proposals for the most complete overhaul of our refugee system in more than two decades. His objective is to make it work better and faster for people who are genuine refugees, while at the same time weeding out, and fast-tracking the removal of, those who are not. Will his reforms work?

There is strong support in Canada for accepting a reasonable number of people who deserve our protection based on the standards set out in the United Nations Refugee Convention. Still, Canadians are concerned about the large number of asylum seekers whose claims have little or no merit but who have been able been able to use our refugee determination system to stay in the country for years after their cases have been rejected.

The new proposals include major changes to how refugee claims will be handled. One controversial feature is that public servants will conduct an initial information-gathering interview with asylum seekers and will also preside over the actual hearings of cases in the Refugee Protection Division of the Immigration and Refugee Board. In the past, such hearings were conducted by Governor-in-Council appointees, many of whom were drawn from the ranks of immigration activists.

As the Auditor General of Canada has pointed out, the results of the old system could be wildly inconsistent. In one report the A-G noted that the approval rate for people from one particular country was 4% at one regional IRB regional board, but 49% and 82% at others. While refugee activists argue that the use of public servants in such roles leaves open the possibility of political interference in the decision-making process, the fact is that such a system is used effectively in many other countries including Britain, France, Australia and the United States. Claimants whose cases are rejected will be able to lodge appeals with a new Refugee Appeals Division in the IRB composed of completely independent Government-in Council appointees or ask for a review by the Federal Court.

Perhaps the most contentious of Kenney's proposals will be that Canada designates safe countries of origin. Many other countries do this in order to avoid having their systems clogged with large numbers of claims by people from countries with democratic governments and good human rights records. We made provision to establish such a list in the late 1980s but the government yielded to pressure from refugee lobbyists and dropped the idea.

In consequence, we had to deal with sudden and massive numbers of claims from nationals of countries such as Portugal, Turkey and Trinidad and Tobago some years ago and, more recently, from those of Mexico, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Until now the only way we have been able to stop such flows is by imposing visa requirements on travelers from the countries in question, even though this makes travel difficult for bona fide visitors and should not be necessary.

The need to bring order to how we handle refugee claims is more urgent now than ever with tens of thousands of people around the globe seeking better economic opportunities in countries such as Canada without having to go through normal immigration channels. Recent Australian experience provides a cautionary tale about what happens if you become too relaxed about whom you allow to make asylum claims.

After Australia made it more difficult for unannounced boat arrivals to get automatic access to the refugee system, such arrivals virtually ceased. But when Australia subsequently adopted a more lenient approach under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and stopped forcing many seeking asylum to make claims off-shore, more than 100 boats arrived. Their occupants swamped refugee facilities and threw the system into turmoil. It remains to be seen how successful Jason Kenney will be in implementing his reforms. Refugee advocates will oppose many of them and refugee lawyers will no doubt find ways of slowing down the pace he has mapped out for the processing of claims. The safe countries of origin designation, which is an essential part of the package, may have to be revisited if it proves difficult to justify making such designations on an ad hoc basis in response to spikes in arrivals.

What is clear, though, is that Kenney has put forth a comprehensive and carefully thought out plan to deal with the chaos in our refugee determination system that has been festering for years. In doing so, he has included provision for enabling genuine refugees to settle in Canada and begin their new lives without the extended delays they now face. Given the challenges he will face in implementing his proposals, it may well be that at some stage he will have to revise some of them to make them completely workable. With his command of the issues and the resolve he has shown to date, however, there is every likelihood that he will do his best to see the job through.

– Martin Collacott is former Canadian ambassador to countries in Asia and the Middle East and lives in Vancouver.