The high costs of our refugee system
Toronto magazine writer Daniel Stoffman, winner of the fourth annual Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, used his grant to study Canada’s immigration system. The fellowship is named for Joseph E. Atkinson, former publisher of The Star, and is designed to further his tradition of liberal journalism in Canada.
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Either Canada is right and the rest of the world is wrong or the rest of the world is right and Canada is wrong.
That is the simplest way to sum up the strange case of Canada’s refugee determination system.
It would be hard to find any other national issue in which the reality is so far removed from the day-to-day portrayal of it in the mass media.
Newspapers print a regular stream of stories about unfortunate people whose claims for refugee status have been denied. Meanwhile, advocacy groups and immigration lawyers denounce as inhumane any attempt to deter non-refugees from claiming refugee status in Canada.
Listening to the statements of immigration lawyers and refugee advocates, one would think the treatment of refugee claimants in Canada was unusually harsh. Yet, in fact, no other country comes even close to Canada’s willingness to believe the stories of people who say they are refugees.
The first essential fact to understand about Canada’s refugee determination system is that it is not really a refugee determination system. Since the federal Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) began operations in 1989, Canada has granted refugee status to thousands of people who would have no hope of getting such status in any other country.
In doing so, the IRB has created a parallel immigration program in which self-selected immigrants, who wish to live in Canada for economic reasons, claim to be refugees as a way of bypassing the more stringent admission requirements of the regular immigration program.
The second essential fact is that most of the people who arrive here claiming asylum have little in common with the vast majority of the world’s 17 million refugees, most of whom live in squalid Third World camps and who could never dream of raising enough money to fly to Canada.
It costs Canada $50,000 to process and take care of each refugee claimant who arrives here. Meanwhile, refugee children from Somalia are starving to death in camps in Kenya. The United Nations has only $40 per person per year to care for the refugees in such camps.
The refugee claimants who come here are sometimes stigmatized by critics as “bogus refugees,” “imposters,” or “charlatans.”
Such characterizations are unfair, says Stanley Knight, who was assistant deputy chairman of the IRB until he quit in disgust last year. Knight has had long experience with immigrants and refugees as president of the Vancouver Refugee Council and of MOSAIC, an immigrant-serving organization. He also served on a United Nations task force on refugees.
Knight says it is wrong to blame the refugee claimants because it was not their decision, but the Canadian government’s, to set up a porous system that is easily exploited by non- refugees. “We have given them an immigration opportunity and they are taking advantage of it,” he says. “What else would you expect?”
A typical case, Knight says, would be “a Central American who applies as an independent immigrant but doesn’t have enough points. Maybe he has a relative to sponsor him but the relative doesn’t have sufficient financial strength so he is rejected.
“He gets an air ticket for a ‘vacation’ trip to Canada. He signs a note at the Canadian Embassy promising not to make a refugee claim but External (Affairs) doesn’t believe him so he doesn’t get a visa. So he flies to Los Angeles, takes the bus to Canada, and makes a refugee claim.”
Under the Geneva Conventions, a refugee is defined as a person who is outside his native country and can’t go back because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, religion, nationality, social class or political opinion. In addition, many people, while not individually persecuted, seek refuge from civil strife in places like Somalia and Yugoslavia. Such people are not (except by Canada) classed as Geneva Conventions refugees, but they too need protection.
A refugee, in other words, is anyone who needs a haven until it is safe to go home again.
How many of those who say they need protection really do? And what proof is there that the IRB is granting refugee status to people who don’t qualify for it under normally accepted international standards? The proof is in statistics readily available from international organizations involved in refugee welfare.
One such organization is Informal Consultations, a Geneva-based secretariat supported by 16 industrialized countries that are major destinations for asylum-seekers. In analyzing 250,000 asylum- seekers who arrived in member states in 1988, Informal Consultations found that 42,000 (16.8 per cent) were declared Geneva Conventions refugees and another 48,000 (19.2 per cent) were classed as non- conventions refugees. It found the remaining 160,000 (64 per cent) not in need of any protection at all.
These numbers are typical of refugee determination systems everywhere, including Canada’s before the establishment of the IRB. Canada classes 50 per cent of asylum-seekers as Geneva Conventions refugees, well down from the bizarre 79 per cent acceptance rate the IRB had in 1989 but still far above the international norm. The average rate for members of Informal Consultations is 14 per cent, a figure that would be even lower if Canada were not a member.
Meanwhile, our Commonwealth partner, Australia, accepts 7 per cent of refugee claimants and Finland less than 1 per cent. Denmark and Sweden, two countries famous for their humanitarianism, accept 10 per cent and 5 per cent respectively.
The United Nations is also at odds with the IRB on refugee affairs.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which works on behalf of refugees all over the world, considers resettlement in a distant country like Canada the least desirable solution for a refugee. The vast majority of refugees, in its view, are better off either staying in their own region or seeking temporary asylum and returning home when conditions allow.
Before the outbreak of civil war in former Yugoslavia, the UNHCR had estimated that only 42,290 people in the world needed resettlement in 1992. Yet Canada’s 1992 immigration plan calls for accepting 58,000 refugees – almost 16,000 more than the United Nations said needed permanent resettlement in the entire world.
Canada was not always so generous. During World War II, it sent Jewish refugees back to Nazi death camps. Since then, however, Canada has performed admirably in welcoming refugees from places like Hungary, Chile and Vietnam.
Our record, under the Refugee Status Advisory Committee (predecessor of the IRB) was good enough to win Canada a United Nations award for service to refugees. Yet, during that period, Canada’s acceptance rate for refugees was similar to those of other countries and far lower than under the IRB.
The good thing about having a high refugee acceptance rate is that it minimizes the chances of turning away someone who might really need protection.
But Canada’s abnormal acceptance rate probably does more harm than good. The international community is struggling to find a common approach to the problem of unauthorized migration and our oddball system complicates that effort.
“The larger the number of non-refugees in asylum systems, the greater the risk that the genuinely persecuted will not obtain protection.” These words, contained in a report by Informal Consultations, go to the heart of the problem.
If non-refugees and their Canadian lawyers cry wolf too often what will happen when large numbers of people who really are in danger cry for help? Will we listen? Would the international community’s response to the plight of refugees from Somalia and former Yugoslavia have been swifter and more effective were not the asylum systems of Canada and every other industrialized country clogged with fraudulent claims?
Jonas Widgren, the former Swedish undersecretary of immigration who heads Informal Consultations, worries about these questions. If Canada’s refugee determination system loses public support it’s terrible news for genuine refugees, he says.
“Why do I help someone knocking at Canada’s door? The answer has to be that this guy would be tortured or killed if he didn’t get to Canada,” Widgren says. “But this has to be true.”
If it is not true, then the public will not support the basic principle that people in trouble must have protection. Support is already eroding in Europe, Widgren says, and the result could be “the collapse of asylum systems in many states within the next five or 10 years.”
The abuse of Western asylum systems draws money and attention away from efforts to resolve the situations that create refugees in the first place and from helping to care for the millions living in refugee camps in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
While Canada’s refugee determination system costs an estimated $1 billion a year, including welfare and other costs associated with looking after claimants, our 1991 contribution to international refugee aid agencies was only $50.7 million.
By being too generous in accepting refugee claims, Canada exacerbates the problem of unauthorized migration, say Widgren and other experts.
The appeal of Canada’s refugee system is so strong that it pulls people who otherwise would have stayed at home. Some of them stop in Europe en route and stay there instead.
This “pull factor” also provides an opening for unscrupulous entrepreneurs who make big profits selling false documents and tickets to people intending to make refugee claims in Canada.
Why do we allow this to happen? Why do refugee advocates fight to prevent deportation of even the most dubious claimants?
“It’s a guilt complex,” says Widgren. “People say, ‘The whole world is living under bad conditions and we are living under good conditions, so we should let everybody stay.’ “
We are also doing harm to ourselves. Interviews with Knight and IRB members reveal deep concern about the consequences to Canada of absorbing some of the people getting in as refugees. (The current members could not be identified for fear of being fired from jobs that pay more than $80,000 a year.)
“Nobody is assessing the social cost of our refugee system,” says Knight. “We are admitting people who are illiterate in their own languages and who have no marketable skills in our industrial society. We don’t have adequate training programs to prepare them or the emotional support systems to help them.”
To get refugee status, a claimant must tell a story to a panel consisting of two members of the IRB. If he can get one of them to accept the story, he is in.
The refugee appears before this two-member panel only after passing a preliminary hearing before an Immigration Canada adjudicator and an IRB member to determine whether he has a “credible basis” to make a claim. Refugee advocates say the fact 95 per cent of claimants pass this stage is proof that most claims are well-founded. But this is misleading.
Members of the IRB say that, for example, almost any black claiming to be from Somalia (even though he may not be from Somalia) can pass the first hearing. So can a Hong Kong Chinese claiming to be a mainland Chinese fleeing persecution. The claim need only sound credible. It does not have to be proved.
“There is horrendous abuse,” says a Toronto board member. “We do not know who we are letting in. We don’t know who these people are and that scares me.”
Smugglers charge fees of up to $25,000 to prospective refugee claimants in return for tickets and false documents. The smugglers also provide stories for the claimants to tell the IRB.
In addition, some members of local ethnic communities advise newcomers on what stories have worked in the past. For example, one successful Somalian claimant told a Toronto panel that he did not have a passport because he had inadvertently left it in a taxi in Boston. Subsequently, several other Somalian claimants explained they had left their passports in taxis in Boston.
“After a time, you get to know what part of the world people are from by the way they look and speak,” says a Toronto board member. “But I’m not allowed to say, ‘You don’t look Somalian, prove it.’
“If I think somebody isn’t from Somalia, I need hard proof. But the claimant doesn’t need any.”
This kid-glove treatment, plus the fact a claimant need only convince one of two IRB members of his case, help explain Canada’s abnormal acceptance rate.
It’s tougher in other countries. In Denmark, for example, a government minister decides a case based on the transcript of a police interview. France, on the other hand, has an independent board but claimants don’t get legal aid or even the right to a lawyer.
Another major reason for our high acceptance rate, say board members, is simply that members must give a written explanation if they say no but don’t have to justify a yes in writing. Our IRB members are the highest-paid refugee adjudicators in the world, but it is human nature to find ways to avoid work.
“There are many on the board for whom English or French is a second language,” says one board member. “I know one for whom English is a fifth language. A lot of these people have difficulty writing and in order to avoid having to, they look for reasons to say yes.”
Ghanaians are one example of a group apparently taking advantage of the immigration opportunity offered by the IRB. In other countries, Ghanaian claims for political asylum are almost always rejected because Ghana is not considered a “refugee-producing” country. But in Canada, 1,159 Ghanaians were granted refugee status in 1990.
“This is abuse,” says Eduardo Arboleda, legal officer for the UNHCR’s Ottawa office. “People who close their eyes, and say all these people are refugees, don’t understand the situation. They don’t understand that many people who are genuine refugees don’t have access to Canada and never will because if you are really being persecuted you usually have neither the possibility nor the desire to go to another continent.”
The immigration bill before Parliament would eliminate the “credible basis” hearing, allow fingerprinting of claimants and require a unanimous decision by the two-member panel when claimants arrive without documents. In addition, the bill would allow Canada to return people who entered from other nations designated as safe countries. For example, a Tamil refugee arriving in Canada via Amsterdam would be returned to the Netherlands.
The future will see an increasingly multilateral approach to refugee issues. European Community countries have signed, but not yet ratified, the Dublin Convention, which is aimed at preventing “asylum-shopping.”
If it goes into effect in 1993, as scheduled, a refugee will have to make his claim in the first country in which he arrives. If he goes somewhere else, he will be sent back to the first country.
Canada would like to be included in the Dublin agreement and is talking to the U.S. about implementing a similar agreement for North America. Theoretically, if Canada could get both agreements, it would slash the number of claims heard here because there are few direct flights from refugee-producing countries to Canada.
But it’s not quite that easy. Once at a Canadian airport, a claimant could mingle in the arrivals hall and, after destroying his ticket stub, claim to have come directly from his own country, an External Affairs official says.
Another possibility for the future is adoption of the concept of temporary asylum. This is used in the U.S. and Australia but Canada has always resisted it, preferring to have new arrivals settle in.
“The problem in Canada is that everything is black and white,” says Arboleda. “In Canada, you’re a refugee or not a refugee, but in reality a lot of people are right in between. Temporary asylum would be incredibly helpful.”
Haitians and Tamils are examples of people who could benefit from temporary status, he says, because the situation in their home countries could settle down in six months or a year and they could return.
“We say they need protection, whether they are refugees or not, and in six months you can send them back,” he says. “Some groups say, ‘How can you keep these people in limbo?’ Well, we are not interested in people getting landed status, we are interested in protecting them.”
In the end, that is what a refugee program should be about – protection for those who really need it.