Evidence of meeting #33 for Citizenship and Immigration in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was refugee.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Martin Collacott  Spokeperson, Centre for Immigration Policy Reform
  • Peter Showler  Director, Refugee Forum, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa
  • Noa Mendelsohn Aviv  Director, Equality Program, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • Julie Taub  Immigration and Refugee Lawyer, As an Individual
  • Nathalie Des Rosiers  General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • Toni Skarica  Crown Attorney, Ministry of the Attorney General of Ontario
  • Debbie Douglas  Executive Director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI)
  • Francisco Rico-Martinez  Regional Director, Toronto, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI)

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, meeting number 33, Monday, April 30, 2012. This meeting is also televised. It's held pursuant to the order of reference of Monday, April 23, 2012, namely Bill C-31, an Act to Amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and several other acts.

We have two guests today. For the first hour, we have Martin Collacott. He's with the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform.

You've been here before, many times. Welcome back, sir.

We also have Mr. Peter Showler, director of the refugee forum at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa.

Sirs, you have 10 minutes each.

Mr. Collacott, we'll start with you.

3:30 p.m.

Martin Collacott Spokeperson, Centre for Immigration Policy Reform

Thank you, Chairman. I will try to stick to my 10 minutes this time.

Canada has a long and impressive record of providing protection to refugees. In per capita terms we're among the world leaders with respect to how many refugees we resettle from overseas, as well as the number and percentage of asylum seekers to whom we grant refugee status and the range of benefits we provide.

While there's strong public support for accepting reasonable numbers of genuine refugees, many Canadians also believe there are serious problems with the current system and that Canadian generosity is being widely abused.

I think it's important to recognize that when Canada signed on to the United Nations refugee convention, we had no expectation of becoming a country of first asylum for any significant number of refugee claimants.

After War World II, we resettled more than 180,000 displaced persons from Europe, and subsequently thousands who fled from Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Asians from Uganda in the early 1970s, and Indochinese boat people later in the decade, including, by the way, some of my wife's family.

Canada did not expect to be a country of first asylum largely because of our geographical location. To get here, the vast majority of refugee claimants have to travel through countries where, under generally accepted international rules, they could and, indeed, should have sought asylum if their real purpose was to reach a safe country.

I might mention in this regard that my own concerns over the shortcomings of our refugee system started in 1986, with the arrival off the coast of Newfoundland of a boatload of 150 people who said they had fled from Sri Lanka. It was later revealed that they had been living in Germany for several years where some of them already had been granted refugee status. They had decided to move on to Canada in the expectation of receiving more generous benefits here.

We had a chance to bring this sort of situation under control a few years later, when legislation to create the Immigration Refugee Board was drafted. It was our intention to establish a list of safe third countries, that is, safe countries where asylum seekers should have made their refugee claims before moving on to Canada to look for more generous benefits, which is a practice known as asylum shopping.

The establishment of a safe third country list would have prevented us from being deluged with claimants who were not entitled to make claims in Canada because they had opportunities to make them in the safe countries they'd passed through to get here. Unfortunately, an influential and persistent refugee lobby was able to convince the then minister of immigration that no country in the world was safe except Canada. As a result, our refugee determination system, which was designed to accommodate a fairly limited number of claims, has been largely overwhelmed since then. This has not only slowed down the processing of claims by applicants who genuinely deserve our protection but has also cost an immense amount of money.

John Manion, a former deputy minister of immigration and secretary of the Treasury Board, who was before a Senate committee in 2001, estimated that the cost of the refugee system in Canada amounts to billions of dollars a year. The costs associated with an individual claimant is estimated to be in the range of $50,000. In comparison, our annual contribution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees amounts to only about two to three dollars a year for each refugee and internally displaced person the UN cares for in its camps around the world.

The reason we spend so much more money on the processing of asylum seekers in Canada than on refugees in UN camps is that over the years a highly organized lobby of refugee lawyers and advocacy groups has been very effective in influencing successive governments with regard to refugee policy. We can expect these groups to make an all-out effort to block the passage of this legislation, because if it becomes law it could have serious implications for the income of many of them. The committee will no doubt be presented with a wide range of sometimes very detailed arguments from refugee lawyers and advocacy groups as to why the various parts of the legislation are not fair or do not meet our international obligations.

I believe that the provisions in Bill C-31 will in fact make the system much fairer than in the past, by substantially reducing the time required to approve claims that have merit. The system won't be clogged up with people who have manifestly unfounded claims.

The system won't be perfect; it's quite possible there will be some genuine cases that fall between the cracks. But bear in mind in this regard that Canada is by no means the only country in the world where people seeking asylum can apply. They have many other options if Canada does not accept their claim.

As for our international obligations, I believe these will be met under Bill C-31. But I'd also point out in this regard that the UN convention on refugees was drafted 60 years ago and updated with its protocol in 1967. Many of the features that characterize the movement of asylum seekers today—large-scale people-smuggling by criminal organizations, passage through safe countries by asylum shoppers looking for greener pastures, and claims made by nationals from safe countries such as the United States and Britain—and many of the challenges were not envisaged by the drafters of the convention and the protocol.

While I believe the legislation does indeed meet our obligations under the convention, I think the latter needs updating and revision to bring it into line with conditions that exist in the world today.

More than one political leader and refugee-receiving state has suggested that their country withdraw from the convention in its present form. I'll just mention one comment. Tony Blair, the former British Labour PM, said in his 2009 memoirs that the convention was written in response to the horrors of World War II and helped create a system that is completely unrealistic in today's world, utterly incapable of dealing with the massive numbers of asylum claims now being made. And I can quote other leaders who have said other things.

If you receive lectures by those opposing Bill C-31 to the effect that it fails to meet our international obligations, I'd point out that it probably does meet our obligations. But second, in any event, it's questionable whether we should feel bound by a convention that's very much out of date in some respects.

With regard, Chairman, to the specific provisions of Bill C-31, I'd say they are well thought out. They address many of the problems that affect the current system. It makes sense, for example, to put in place an effective procedure for designating safe countries of origin and expediting the processing of nationals of such countries. It makes no sense to allow our system to be clogged up year after year with hundreds of American asylum seekers, along with some smaller numbers from such countries as Britain, Australia, France, or even Germany, etc. Virtually nobody else in the world gives serious consideration to nationals of countries that clearly do not persecute their citizens.

If I have any criticism of the bill, it's that it does not go far enough in some regards. In addition to designating safe countries of origin, for example, we should also establish a list of safe third countries. Until now we've only identified the United States as a safe third country, and there's no reason why others, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, should not be given similar designations.

In the time I've been allotted, I won't attempt to comment on each of the major changes proposed in the legislation, but I regard all of them as essentially sound. I would point out that while we at the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform support these changes, this doesn't mean that we agree with the government on all policy areas of concern to us. In fact, we disagree quite strongly with the government on a number of key issues in the area of immigration policy.

As a general comment, I also wish to say that Canada should return as much as possible to its original intent of being a country of resettlement rather than first asylum. We resettle well over 10,000 refugees every year from overseas, most of whom have been screened by the United Nations and are determined to be genuine convention refugees. Most of the asylum seekers who come here to make claims could have applied abroad, but if they don't have a good case for such a claim, they know they are much better off coming here first, since it's common knowledge that they are likely to be able to stay here for years and receive generous public assistance even if their claims are found to be without merit.

In conclusion, Mr. Chair, I would point out that while critics of Bill C-31 will argue that its passage would be a step backwards by Canada as a compassionate and welcoming country, I do not believe this to be the case at all. We'll still be one of the most generous countries, if not the most generous country, in the world in welcoming refugees. I think we will have made major strides in reassuring Canadians that we can create an effective, fair, and efficient system that is not open to widespread abuse.

Thank you.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Thank you, Mr. Collacott.

Mr. Showler.

3:40 p.m.

Peter Showler Director, Refugee Forum, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa

Thank you, Mr. Chair. Good afternoon to the members of the committee.

I have provided you with two written briefs. The first deals with the bill's changes to the refugee claim process. The second addresses the policies underlying the anti human-smuggling provisions of the bill. There is a detailed biography in the first package.

You will see that I have worked as a lawyer representing refugees. I was a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada for more than six years deciding refugee claims. I was then the chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board for three years, with a managerial perspective on managing the resources of the refugee claim system. Finally, I have been an academic studying refugee systems and the international protection of refugees.

In making a recommendation I want you to know that I view the refugee system from all four perspectives. Certainly, I do not view myself as a member of any lobby in any particular direction. My fundamental allegiance is to the Canadian refugee system, one that makes decisions that are correct, fair, fast, and efficient.

In the time allowed, I will address only three aspects of the bill—the short time limits of the refugee claim process, the lack of an appeal for some claimants, and the government's deterrent strategy for group arrivals. My first brief includes a summary analysis of Canada's refugee system. It provides a brief description of the current system, some of its flaws, some of the reforms recommended by Bill C-31, and four recommendations that come out of that.

In regard to the refugee claim process itself, I must say candidly that the time limits are simply too short and will undermine its fairness and its efficiency. Refugees will not have a realistic opportunity to tell their story. A 15-day limit for claimants to file their basis-of-claim form is simply not enough time. In my brief at pages 4 and 5 I outline all of the steps that a refugee claimant has to take in order to file that form.

Please imagine a refugee claimant who arrives at Pearson Airport and makes a claim. They do not speak English. They know nothing of the city or Canadian culture. They don't know where to live. They don't know how to use public transport or how to use a cellphone, which they may have. They have very little money, and they don't understand the refugee system. Within 15 days they are expected to find a competent lawyer, see if they can get legal aid approval, instruct the lawyer appropriately for the lawyer to draft, through an interpreter, the information and deliver it to the Immigration and Refugee Board.

The result of a 15-day limit, in my view, will be more unrepresented claimants and more mistakes in the written form. Poorly drafted and incomplete statements make more work for a board member. Members depend on accurate information to prepare for the hearing. Poorly prepared hearings waste hearing room time and induce mistakes. I recommend that you grant 30 days to provide the written statement to the board. It is a modest gesture, with dramatic results.

For claims inside of Canada at the CIC office, there's a different procedure. I refer to it in my brief, and you can ask me questions about it if you wish. For an appeal to the refugee appeal division, there will be 15 working days to file and complete the appeal. Once again, it is simply not enough time. We cannot assume that it will be the same lawyer representing the claimant at the appeal. Some claimants are already unrepresented, and candidly, some claims are lost because of poor legal representation in the first place.

Under our current system, the time allowed for judicial review applications is 45 days. It has been the experience of counsel over many years that it is not enough time. By contrast, the refugee appeal division members will have 90 days to make their decision. I'm telling you that 15 days is far too short. I recommend 45 days in order to file and complete the appeal. Again, you can ask me questions about that.

For the designated country of origin claims, hearings are scheduled for 30 days after delivery of the claim form. This is an insufficient amount of time for claimant and counsel to obtain and deliver the evidence. The most important evidence is claim-specific. It's usually located in the country of origin, and it's often difficult to obtain. In addition to that, medical and psychological reports are often by far the most germane evidence for the board member to consider. I think you would all understand that it's not possible to obtain those, particularly psychological reports, within 30 days. If the evidence is not available, the results will either be adjournments of hearings—which is inefficient—or unfair decisions based upon incomplete evidence. I recommend that we return to the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, which allowed 60 days for the DCO hearings, and 90 days for regular hearings.

The minister has said that the faster process is necessary to deter fraudulent claimants. In our current system, to process a claim, it takes four to five years from date of claim to date of removal, and that is obviously far too fast. This is not a justification, though, for imposing unrealistically short timelines. Claims that are decided in six to nine months are more than adequate to deter manifestly unfounded claimants. For regular claims, 12 months would be adequate.

I can tell you, based on 25 years of experience in the field, that claimants, whether fraudulent or not, often invest everything in trying to get to Canada. They mortgage their homes. They borrow money. If those people return to their country in five to six or seven months, I assure you that you will not see a second wave of fraudulent claimants from that country. Superfast turnarounds of 45 days or 75 days are simply unnecessary and, in my view, they will be unfair in the sense that incorrect decisions will be made.

In regard to section 36, which defines the six categories of claimants who will not have a right of appeal, firstly, I applaud the government for implementing the refugee appeal division, which has been in the law since 2002 but was never implemented. The lack of an appeal has been one of the critical flaws in Canada's refugee system. This will certainly help to ensure that the board's decisions are well reasoned and reliable.

Refugee claims are not easy to decide. The evidence is inaccessible. Claimants are fragile witnesses. Mistakes are made, inevitably, by the best of board members—and candidly, I must say that some members fall below that standard.

I think you heard Professor Rehaag this morning refer to some of his reports. They are definitive reports, showing that for the individual acceptance rates of IRB members, the variance between the individual rates is unacceptably broad. The unavoidable fact is that for some of the decisions, they are simply not reliable. The solution to that is to have a refugee appeal division appeal for each one of those decisions.

In my brief, I refer to why, for some categories of claimants, it is even more important that they have an appeal. You can ask me questions about that if you wish.

In conclusion, on the issue of fast process, I'll just simply make three points: allow for modestly longer time limits, to give claimants a fair and reasonable opportunity to prove their claims; allow an appeal to every claimant to catch the mistakes that are inevitable, especially with a faster claim process; and have prompt removals of failed claimants. Those timelines are more than adequate to eliminate fraudulent claims while ensuring fair and reliable decisions.

My second brief deals with the attempt to deter group arrivals by way of one-year mandatory detention—or up to one year—and long-term separation of families. I've left the arguments on legality and constitutionality for others.

Mr. Kenney has stated that the purpose of these provisions is to deter asylum seekers from using irregular means to seek protection in Canada. The assumption that mandatory detention will deter asylum seekers from coming to Canada in groups unfortunately has no basis in fact. Australia imposed mandatory detention on all boat arrivals in 1994. Over the following several years, the number of arrivals increased, not decreased.

As well, my brief provides you with the statistics on the number of claims in a chart. It also shows the work of UNHCR researchers, which shows that mandatory detention does not deter asylum seekers.

There are reasons why mandatory detention does not work. There are four principal reasons. First, there were studies done of the detainees in Australia. The majority of the detainees did not even know about the detention policies, the reason being that their primary source of information was the smugglers. Even the minority who did know about the detention policies did not believe them. They thought, “Australia, this is a country where there is the rule of law and democracy.” They did not think it could be that bad—

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Could I ask you to wind up, sir?

3:50 p.m.

Director, Refugee Forum, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa

Peter Showler

Okay. Thank you. I'll just go to my conclusion, then.

Let me conclude by saying that it's possible to make fair and reliable decisions in a relatively short period, to catch our mistakes with an appeal, and to still remove failed claimants promptly and preserve the integrity of our system without resorting to harsh measures such as long-term detention and family separation.

I welcome your questions on any part of the bill.

Thank you.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Thank you both for your presentations.

Ms. James.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I'm going to direct most of my questions to Mr. Collacott.

But Mr. Showler, you said something about four to five years being far too fast for refugee—

3:50 p.m.

Director, Refugee Forum, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa

Peter Showler

Did I say fast?

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

—and I wanted to let you correct that and say that it's way too long.

3:50 p.m.

Director, Refugee Forum, Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa

Peter Showler

Mr. Chair, did I say slow or fast?

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Rick Dykstra St. Catharines, ON

It's okay. We understood.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

I just wanted to give you an opportunity to correct that.

I'm going to direct my question to Mr. Collacott.

Welcome back.

This morning, of course, we've had hours of debate on this bill and had the opportunity to speak with the assistant deputy minister of strategic and program policy, and the director of asylum policy and programs from Citizenship and Immigration. One of the questions I asked was: surely Canada is not the only country that will process some claims faster than others, is it?

I want to understand from your own personal experience what you can tell this committee concerning the negative impact there will be if we in Canada do not go with this method of processing some applications faster and move to a faster and fairer processing system.

3:50 p.m.

Spokeperson, Centre for Immigration Policy Reform

Martin Collacott

The ones that would be processed more quickly, of course, are those from designated countries such as the United States, and we have hundreds every year from the United States.

First of all, these clog up the system with people who are almost never going to get refugee status but are able to stay here for quite some time. It makes it more costly, but importantly, it slows down the processing of other people.

Many other countries have rapid processing. In fact, some won't even let them cross the border. Denmark won't let someone from a safe third country in; they're stopped at the border.

Frankly, I would support that. I know it would be difficult to get politically accepted, but I think most western countries now have some way of dealing with people whose claims don't make sense. The idea that Britain or Australia or Sweden, from which we get a few claims every year, persecute their citizens in any way just doesn't wash, as far as I'm concerned.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

Roxanne James Scarborough Centre, ON

Thank you.

You hit the nail on the head, in that this system is going to crack down on the bogus refugee claimants and at the same time make sure those who are legitimate refugees will be able to have their claims heard quicker—faster and fairer—and get the support of Canada.

When we talk about the reasons or pull factors explaining why people choose Canada over other countries, we have a situation in the province of Ontario right now. My riding is Scarborough Centre. As you know, with the welfare system in Ontario, we have a real issue right now in this particular province, whereby bogus refugee claimants can come in, file their application—and the countries we're talking about are those in the European Union, from whom 95% of the claimants will literally walk away from their claims—and stay here long enough to start collecting those lucrative benefits.

I'm wondering what your comments are on this. I don't think Canadian taxpayers realize the cost to us, the hardworking Canadian taxpayers. It's actually $170 million a year alone for bogus refugee claimants from the European Union.

I want to know what your comments are on this.