The Harper government is using its nine-month-old majority to make Canada a more unwelcome destination for asylum seekers with shaky refugee claims.
It’s also introducing tougher penalties for human smugglers who would illegally funnel refugee seekers to Canada, like the hundreds of Tamils shipped on M.V. Sun Sea to Canada in 2010.
New legislation introduced Thursday would give the federal immigration minister the power to designate which foreign countries are safer than others and therefore less likely to be a legitimate source of refugees.
Refugee claimants from countries on this safe list – democratic nations with a solid human-rights record and an independent judiciary – would find it much harder to fight to stay in Canada under the proposed law. Their application would be fast-tracked and resolved in as little as 45 days, down from up to 1,038 days.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is expected to put the entire 27 countries in the European Union – or close to it – on this safe country list.
These claimants, and those who arrive on migrants ships, would lose a key route of appeal if their claim is rejected and could be deported from Canada even if a petition to Federal Court was still in progress.
“This system creates a two-tiered system of refugees,” said Rob Shropshire, interim executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees. “There’s an inherent prejudice in a system that says this class of claimants come from countries that do not normally produce refugees. How can someone not be affected by that when making a decision about if this claim is valid or not?”
This new bill comes two years after the Conservatives last overhauled the refugee system and undoes some of the compromises the then-minority Tory government was forced to make to pass earlier reforms in 2010.
Mr. Kenney justified going further on refugee system reform because, he said, it’s become clear in the interim that the last bill left gaps that “bogus” asylum claimants are exploiting.
“We’re facing a large wave of unfounded asylum claims coming from the European Union in particular,” he said. “You will not be allowed to remain in Canada for years using endless appeals at the expense of Canadian taxpayers.”
The Tories allege that Canada has become known as easy target for refugees because of its multiple appeal system and offer of social benefits to applicants, noting Canada received about 2,300 asylum claims from Hungary in 2010 while the U.S. received 32.
“We have people showing up at [Canada Border Services]at the airport when they make their asylum claim asking where they can get their welfare cheque ... It’s very clear our generous social benefits are acting as a significant pull factor,” Mr. Kenney said, adding that 95 per cent of applications from EU countries were rejected, withdrawn or abandoned. These claims cost taxpayers $170-million to process in recent years.
The Official Opposition says Mr. Kenney is politicizing what should be a judicial process.
“The bill that all parties worked together towards in the last Parliament represented a compromise that the Minister of Immigration himself said improved the bill,” NDP immigration critic Don Davies said. “And, inexplicably, here we are, months later, before that bill has actually been implemented, and he’s stripping out those amendments and going back to the original bill that he himself admitted was inferior.”
The Conservatives are also promising to deny health and dental benefits to refugee claimants. Those originating in safe-country list nations would be here so briefly if their application was rejected that they wouldn’t have an opportunity to claim benefits. And those who showed up in Canada through “irregular arrivals” such as refugee ships would be denied health and dental benefits until and if their application was approved.
Gabor Sebok, 28, was one of those refugee claimants who would have been sent home under Mr. Kenney’s new bill. He fled Hungary in 2010, saying he was persecuted for being a Roma, traditionally known as gypsies.
“I go for a job interview, they take one look at me and say no, your skin is dark,” Mr. Sebok said of life in Hungary. “One day, some people just punched me because I was Roma and my teeth were knocked out. But when I went to the police they laughed at me even I though I was bleeding in the station.”
It took Mr. Sebok two attempts to get his refugee application approved, because he didn’t speak English and found it hard to find a translator and lawyer who would help with his case.
He is now saving money to get his parents and brother to Toronto, but worries the new system will work against them. He flatly rejected Mr. Kenney’s claims that many applications from EU countries are “bogus.”
“How are you supposed to explain your problems if you don’t speak English? The time limit goes by too fast,” he said. “I’m an engineer with two degrees and I couldn’t explain my case properly. How do you expect Roma people ... many of them don’t speak English, to do it?”
The new bill would, however, bring Canada more in line with the systems in many European countries, said Peter Showler, former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
Prof. Showler, with the University of Ottawa law school, says this is a step backward. “The difference is, in Europe, they have a quick front-end process and then have two to three levels of appeal,” Prof. Showler said.
“In Canada, we have a longer but better initial screening,” he said.
This new bill would speed up the process, but not put in place the appeals.
The new legislation would also grant authorities the ability to collect biometric data from people entering Canada on a visitor visa, work permit or study visa, initially only from so-called “higher risk countries” but later phasing in all countries that require visas. The data would also be shared by the RCMP for future domestic law enforcement cases.