Refugee system faces 'unprecedented dismantling'
Published Friday, February 17, 2012 6:57PM EST
The Conservative government's new plan to reform the refugee system will prevent legitimate claimants from telling their stories and will damage the Immigration and Refugee Board's ability to review those claims, says one immigration expert.
The reforms were announced Thursday by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, who said Canada is being preyed upon by "bogus" refugees from democratic countries with strong human rights records.
Under the proposed changes, refugees from so-called "safe" countries will have to file a claim within 15 days of arriving, and will not have the option of appealing the Immigration and Refugee Board's decision or accessing social services such as welfare.
Refugees from unsafe countries will have more time, and will have access to an appeal system and some social benefits.
"This is an unprecedented dismantling of the Canadian refugee system," said Peter Showler, director of the Refugee Forum at the University of Ottawa.
"In actuality what's going to happen is all refugee claimants going forward now are not going to have time to present their claims and ones who are placed on this so-called safe country list are going to have even less time plus no appeal to catch the mistakes."
Under the current system, new arrivals have 28 days to file their claim. That will be reduced to 15 for claimants from countries such as Hungary or Romania which are not typically considered refugee-generating countries.
Showler said the changes, which have been tabled in the House of Commons but not passed, will make it much more difficult to file a refugee claim in Canada.
"The great strength of the Canadian refugee system has always been that we allow a claimant the opportunity to actually tell their story." Showler said.
"Fifteen days after arrival, if you can imagine someone who doesn't speak English or French, they have to find a lawyer, the lawyer has to get Legal Aid, they have to ask the questions and they have to file a written statement. What will happen is it will be poorly-drafted, half-told stories that are presented."
That will not only hurt the refugee's changes of being accepted, but will make it difficult for IRB staff to properly assess claims, he said.
Both Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday said thousands of refugee applicants from safe countries are clogging up the system and slowing down the process for those with legitimate applications.
In fact, 23 per cent of refugee claim submissions last year were filed from the EU -- an increase of 14 per cent over the previous year.
Refugees from Europe
More refugee claims were filed from the EU in 2011 than from Africa and Asia. And virtually all of them were either rejected by the IRB, or abandoned by the claimant, Kenney said.
"Too many tax dollars are spent on people who do not need our protection. In fact about 95 per cent of all claims from the European Union have been determined by our system and mainly by the decision of those asylum claimants themselves, to be unfounded," he said.
Showler said Kenney's comments were largely referencing ethnic Romas from Hungary who have been claiming refugee status in increasing numbers, saying they face persecution in Hungary.
Showler acknowledged the Roma applicants come from a country with a democratic government that is widely considered to respect human rights. However, he said some groups face discrimination and oppression regardless of where they live.
It's unfair to assume the claims are fraudulent, based solely on the country of origin, Showler said.
"These are people that come from a long history of oppression and they think they are refugees when they arrive so to call them bogus is just simply wrong."
Reforms backtrack on deal
The proposed legislation reverses some key concessions the Tories made with the opposition two years ago in order to pass the Balanced Refugee Reform Act through a minority Parliament.
In the Commons Thursday, interim NDP Leader Nicole Turmel accused the government of breaking a promise.
"Why destroy all the good, non-partisan work that was done on refugee reform?" asked Turmel.
Harper said more needs to be done to address the backlog of immigration claims.
"Some changes were made in the last Parliament that have been helpful, but are clearly not sufficient to deal with this issue," he said.