Skip to main content

Canada has had one of the most generous – if not the most generous – refugee-determination systems in the world.

Yet, after a while in office, every government wants to change the system, often for good reasons. The refugee policy world is complicated, what with court rulings, quasi-judicial hearings, immigration lawyers, lobby groups, international conventions, less-than-complete documentation of some claims and plenty of genuine refugees fleeing fear of persecution as well as economic migrants posing as refugees.

Ideally, a refugee system should be fast, thorough and fair. Not everyone would say the Canadian system is fair, although by world standards it is, but almost no one would say it is fast. Backlogs of tens of thousands of claimants have plagued the system. Those backlogs historically have produced amnesties and periodic but unsuccessful changes to speed things up. Today, there are about 42,000 cases in the queue.

Now, along comes the Harper government's new refugee policy, crafted by the energetic Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. It went fully into force on Dec. 15. Whether it will work better than the previous system obviously cannot be predicted. On paper, the new system looks like an improvement. At the very least, it deserves a chance to succeed.

The new system sets up three classes of refugees instead of two. As before, there will be refugees identified as such abroad and brought to Canada. This category – people in "vulnerable situations" – will be increased to as many as 14,500. A government willing to bring in more of these refugees can hardly be accused of being "anti-refugee."

Then there are people who land in Canada and claim refugee status. A new category has been created – claimants from designated countries of origin. There are 27 of them for now – 25 in the European Union, plus the United States and Croatia. These are countries with democratic governance, independent judiciary, protection of human rights, free press and so on, from which few successful claimants can be expected. Anyone applying from these countries will get one hearing within 30 to 45 days.

Most of them will fail, and unsuccessful claimants will not have the right to appeal to the Immigration and Refugee Board, as do claimants from non-DCO countries. They can appeal, however, to the Federal Court.

This DCO identification has some refugee advocates upset. They say everyone deserves the full appeal procedure, regardless of their country of origin. The government relies on a balance-of-probability analysis, defending the DCO system as faster, cheaper and fairer.

The initial DCO list, however, is bizarre. It includes Sweden and Denmark, but not Norway, Switzerland or Iceland, presumably because they are not in the European Union. It somehow misses Australia and New Zealand.

Eventually, the list will be updated to include many more countries. Some should be from Latin America, where people from every country now require visas to travel to Canada – a political irritation, an expense (for the traveller and the government) and unnecessary for established democratic countries such as Chile and Mexico.

The third category – and the largest – will be from non-DCO countries. These claims will be heard by civil servants, with appeals allowed to a new Refugee Appeal Division. Other changes envisage faster removal from Canada of unsuccessful applicants and the removal of a provision that allowed unsuccessful claimants to avoid deportation while they appealed to the Federal Court. It was this long delay – on average, four to five years – that allowed people to remain in Canada.

The Kenney reforms aim to find the right balance between being fair to would-be refugees with plausible claims and being active in bringing refugees already defined as such from abroad, while being stricter with false claimants and trying to make the entire system deliver judgments much more quickly than the previous one.

It will be some time before anyone knows if the minister has found the balance among these competing priorities. Once immigration lawyers begin to work with the new system, they will find ways of elongating procedures. And no one should be surprised if someone launches an appeal against parts of the new system in the courts.

If the new system works as intended – and many other reform efforts have failed – Canada will be well-served.