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RCMP officers cover the the stern of a ship filled with Tamils from Sri Lanka. The ship carrying 490 suspected asylum seekers docked at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt near Victoria Aug. 13, 2010. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
RCMP officers cover the the stern of a ship filled with Tamils from Sri Lanka. The ship carrying 490 suspected asylum seekers docked at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt near Victoria Aug. 13, 2010. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

CAMPBELL CLARK

Kenney's concession a welcome pattern for refugee reform Add to ...

Let’s hope that Jason Kenney’s backtrack on detaining boatloads of refugees without a judge’s review is a signal he’s trading warnings of stranger-danger for a focus on the real problems with Canada’s refugee system.

Wednesday, he suddenly jettisoned the most noxious measure in his proposed refugee reforms, a provision that would force asylum-seekers who arrive by boat to face a year in mandatory detention – without any review. Now they’ll get reviews of their detention after 14 days and then, after six months. Mr. Kenney ditched a bad idea to move on. It should be a pattern, because some of the reforms are needed.

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Getting refugee policy right has a big impact on our foreign policy. The flow of people is increasingly central to how countries interact. The hurdles we set up to keep people away – like visas – have a major impact on foreign relations and trade.

The number of people claiming refugee status in Canada is falling, mostly because of efforts to prevent those who might claim asylum from ever getting here to file a claim. But very few ever came by boat.

Mr. Kenney’s bill proposing mandatory year-long detention was sparked by the arrival of two rusty ships off the British Columbia coast in 2009 and 2010, bringing 568 Tamils to claim asylum. About a decade before, a few ships from China caused a furor for the then-Liberal government, but there were none in between.

When the two ships of Tamils arrived, the Harper government went on a tear over human smuggling. But year-long mandatory detention for the passengers, without any review, is excessive. It was more than what was necessary for identity and security checks, which is the point of detention. It was a deterrent that was unlikely to deter. It was a political response.

There were also complaints, notably this week from organizations like the Canadian office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that mandatory detention without review is a violation of international law. Mr. Kenney reversed course, saying it showed he’s open to suggestions.

Hopefully he’s sacrificing fear of boats to fix real flaws.

The best system is one that accepts real refugees, or rejects failed claimants, quickly. Canada has used its visa system to keep out potential asylum-seekers because its refugee-determination system, with a big backlog and slow process, can’t make quick decisions. Mr. Kenney argues people come because they can “game” the system for years.

So when there’s a sudden increase of refugee claimants from a community, like Romas from the Czech Republic, Canada slaps a requirement for all Czechs to apply for visitors visas. That slows regular travel and damages relations. The Czechs, as well as the Romanians and Bulgarians whose citizens also require visas to visit Canada, will insist that’s changed before they’ll allow a Canada-EU free-trade deal to be ratified, for example.

Mr. Kenney’s other reforms, like fast-tracking the claims of asylum-seekers from those countries officially considered safe – which would presumably include members of the European Union – have detractors, too. But it’s hard to see why those who need protection from persecution can’t find it somewhere in the 27-member EU. The quick, no-appeal review Mr. Kenney proposes should be enough.

It matters because European asylum-seekers are starting to be a big part of the Canadian caseload.

The number of people claiming refugee status in Canada has generally declined in recent years: There were more than 34,831 in 2008 and less than 24,981 in 2011. An internal Canadian Border Services Agency document, unearthed this week by immigration newsletter Lexbase, found post-9/11 efforts to keep people away through visa and security screening have reduced the number of claimants coming from traditional “source” countries like Sri Lanka, India and Somalia “to their lowest level in 20 years.” Claims from other previously big sources like Mexico, Colombia and Haiti, are on the decline.

Instead, asylum-seekers are increasingly from Hungary, Poland and their neighbours: “Europe,” the report said, “has become Canada’s primary source of refugee claims.”

Mr. Kenney has made a concession on detention. It should be the pattern: sacrificing knee-jerk reactions for needed reforms.



Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa

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