Tories, Liberals Seek Consensus On Revamped Refugee System

Tories, Liberals seek consensus on revamped refugee system
If consensus holds, changes to determination process could become law within a month

By John Ibbitson
The Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 1, 2010

Ottawa A major overhaul of Canadas sclerotic refugee system could become law within a month, if key figures within the Liberal Party are able to persuade their colleagues to support proposed Conservative reforms.

The new legislation aims to speed up the determination process, making it easier both to grant asylum to those who deserve it, and to reject and remove those who dont.

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said in an interview Tuesday that the government will accept amendments to the bill proposed by Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua.

On that basis, sources report that Mr. Bevilacqua and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff are inclined to endorse the bill, despite concerns from the left wing of the Liberal caucus. The caucus will discuss the issue Wednesday.

It would be a very positive signal that minority Parliaments can work. I hope and believe that we can get this done. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney

If a Liberal-Conservative consensus gels, it should be possible to have a final vote in the House of Commons next week. The Conservative-dominated Senate would then have the rest of June to ratify the bill. Barring last-minute obstructions, Canada could have a new refugee law by Canada Day, and the new rules should be in place by the summer of 2011.

It would be a very positive signal that minority Parliaments can work. Mr. Kenney said. I hope and believe that we can get this done.

No country is as open to those in need of asylum as Canada, and too many undeserving claimants take advantage of this. The result is a system clogged and backlogged; legitimate claimants must wait an average of 19 months to learn whether Canada will grant them permanent refuge, while those exploiting the system can typically count on 4 1/2 years before exhausting their last appeal.

The result is a backlog of 60,000 cases, about 60 per cent of which will ultimately be abandoned, rejected or withdrawn.

Under the new system, an official with the Immigration and Refugee Board would work on an initial claim within 15 days up from the original eight initially proposed by the Conservatives of an applicant being considered eligible. The case would be heard by the IRB within 90 days, up from a proposed 60 days. Those who are turned down would be able to appeal to a new Refugee Appeal Division within the IRB, unless they come from a newly designated safe country of origin.

The most contentious part of the bill concerns this list of safe countries. Claimants from those countries would have no right to appeal if their original application was turned down.

In response to criticism that the immigration minister of the day could deem any country he chose as safe, an amendment to the bill will require that an advisory panel that includes two independent human-rights experts first recommends the definition.

These changes are far from sufficient for some of the bills critics. Designating a country safe is a simplistic and dangerous exercise, said NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow.

You can be safe in Honduras, but if youre a gay activist, you get shot, she said, referring to the recent killing in that country of just such a figure. Mexico could be considered safe, but if youre fleeing drug lords, you could be shot, too.

I still need to be convinced about the safe country of origin, said Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis, who also sits on the immigration committee. The committee will study the bill clause-by-clause Thursday, when a Liberal/Conservative consensus will stand or fall.

For his part, Mr. Bevilacqua said the negotiations over the bill was a work in progress. But he added: But theres no question about the fact that the status quo, when it comes to the refugee system, is not an option. Changes are required.

Andrew Brouwer, who chairs the law reform committee of the Refugee Lawyers Association, said it would also be dangerous to push the hearing process ahead. That would leave applicants scrambling to find legal counsel and obtain necessary documents, often from hostile governments overseas, even as they are coping with the trauma of whatever caused them to flee and being asked to trust government officials, who traditionally have been their worst enemies.

Its the most vulnerable of claimants who will be hurt by this, he maintained. Imagine, he said, survivors of torture having to tell their story in that fifteen-day period to a government official.

If the bill prevails despite the concerns, Mr. Kenney can then turn to the next item on his crowded agenda: his promise to overhaul the visa system, after outrage that former members of Indias security services were refused visas.

In that case, Mr. Kenney had to apologize. In this, however, he just might have reason to celebrate.