House of Commons Hansard #33 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was refugee.

Topics

Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act
Private Members' Business

Noon

NDP

The Acting Speaker Denise Savoie

The hon. member will have almost six minutes left when this debate resumes.

The time provided for the consideration of private members' business has now expired, and the order is dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper.

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

Noon

Calgary Southeast
Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney Minister of Citizenship

moved that Bill C-11, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Federal Courts Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise here today to speak to Bill C-11, the balanced refugee reform act.

This bill and related reforms would reinforce Canada's humanitarian tradition as a place of refuge for victims of persecution and torture, while improving our asylum system to ensure that it is balanced, fast and fair. The bill would ensure faster protection of bona fide refugees, reinforce procedural fairness by implementing a robust refugee appeals division at the IRB and ensure faster removal of those who seek to abuse Canada's generosity by making asylum claims.

Canada has always been a place of refuge for victims of persecution, warfare and oppression. English Canada was founded by refugees fleeing the American revolution, the United Empire Loyalists. Canada was the north star of the underground railroad for escaped slaves from the southern United States.

In 1956, Canada welcomed some 40,000 refugees of Soviet communism fleeing the invasion of Budapest. In 1979 and 1980, Canadian churches and families welcomed some 50,000 Vietnamese or Indochinese boat people, creating the magnificent foundations of our privately sponsored refugee program.

Having said that, there have been moments when we turned our backs on those most urgently in need of our help. We think, of course, of the example of the European Jewish refugees during the second world war who Canada refused to accept, detailed in the great historical work None is Too Many written by Harold Troper and Irving Abella.

We must learn from the mistakes of that period so that we never repeat them. I believe we have learned from those mistakes, because Canada has welcomed some one million refugees to make a new start here in Canada in security and with our protection since the second world war.

There remain an estimated 10.5 million refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, around the world. Every year, some 20 developed democracies resettle about 100,000 refugees, and from that number Canada annually resettles between 10,000 and 12,000 or 1 out of every 10 refugees resettled globally, second only to the United States with 10 times our population.

The government is also active with our international partners to help those in need. Take, for example, the government's commitment to resettle up to 5,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal over several years. We have already welcomed more than 850 Bhutanese refugees in several communities across Canada. In addition, we have also completed the resettlement of more than 3,900 Karens from Thailand.

I was very proud last year to announce a special program to welcome to Canada over the course of three years some 12,000 refugees from the conflict in Iraq. I visited some of these families in Damascus, Syria, last May and I must say I still remain touched and deeply moved after hearing their stories of violence and persecution, often on religious grounds.

Everywhere I go across the country, I encourage community groups, church groups, faith groups and others to participate in our privately-sponsored refugee program to help rescue those Iraqi refugees and other people in need of our support around the world.

In addition to all those things, we have increased our support for the UNHCR in its important work to help displaced populations on the ground. In fact, to quote Abraham Abraham, the UNHCR representative to Canada, “Canada, a major settlement country and a major donor to UNHCR activities worldwide, has for the time in its funding of UNHCR's global operations worldwide reached a new level of over $51 million, making this the highest ever annual Canadian grant to the UN refugee agency”.

I am proud that happened under this government.

In spite of our many achievements, I believe that in the context of balanced reform to our refugee system, Canada can and should do more to help those in need of our protection. That is why, as part of this broader package of reform to our refugee systems, including our asylum system, I have announced our intention to increase the number of resettled refugees welcomed to Canada by 2,500 individuals, to 14,000. We would continue to lead the world and set an example for other countries.

I propose, in the context of refugee reform, that we increase by some 20% or $9 million the refugee assistance program to provide initial assistance for the successful integration of government-assisted refugees typically coming from UN camps. I have also announced, as part of these increases and targets, an increase of some 2,000 positions for people to come through the very effective, privately sponsored refugee program.

Bizarrely, these huge increases in Canada's generosity that I announced were criticized by one individual claiming to speak on behalf of refugee organizations, demonstrating that there are some in this debate who are neither objective nor balanced in their approach. However, I must say that I was gratified to see the overwhelmingly positive response from those who actually work with refugees, not just issue press releases but actually do the practical work with people who need a new start.

For example, Mr. Abraham of the UNHCR said, “This is an encouraging move in the right direction that yet again demonstrates the humanitarian commitment of Canada to provide protection to needy refugees for whom resettlement is the only solution enabling them to rebuild their shattered lives with respect and dignity”.

Mr. Tsehai of Canadian Lutheran World Relief expressed his “sincere appreciation and deep gratitude for your announcement to increase the PSR target to a 6,500 annual level”.

A coalition of sponsorship agreement holders, groups that bring the refugees to Canada, said they were “thrilled with the news”.

There can be no doubt that this government is committed to continuing Canada's proud humanitarian tradition of protecting those in need, but let me turn my attention to the asylum system.

We also have, as all members will know, a very robust, highly regarded and extraordinarily fair charter-compliant legal system for the consideration of asylum claims made by refugee claimants arriving in Canada. Unfortunately the system has many serious, longstanding problems and everyone knows it.

I would like to credit the member for Vaughan, the official opposition immigration critic, for having raised this issue as early as 18 months ago and doing so in a non-partisan fashion. I would also like to commend the Leader of the Opposition for having pointed to the problems in our asylum system, which must be addressed.

One of the problems is that we have had long, very large backlogs in asylum claims as a permanent feature of the system. The average size of the asylum backlog in our system over the past 10 or 15 years has been 40,000 people waiting for a hearing on their applications for asylum protection in Canada. That means that, typically, people have been waiting about a year to get even a hearing. Right now the backlog is as high as 60,000 people waiting for a decision or a hearing on their applications, meaning that people have to wait 19 months for a hearing. This is not acceptable. We must do better.

If someone manages to escape one of Ahmadinejad's prisons in Iran and he arrives at one of our airports with the scars of torture fresh on his back, we do not offer him a quick pathway to security and protection in Canada. We give him a form and say we will check back with him in 19 months.

That is not good enough. Frankly, those who defend the status quo, who say that these permanent, huge backlogs and the large number of false claims, which contribute enormously to those backlogs, are acceptable, have taken the wrong position with respect to our moral obligation to provide speedy protection to those in need of it.

The truth is this. Too many people try to use our asylum system as a back door to gain entry into Canada, rather than wait patiently to come here through the immigration process. The result is that too many people abuse our system in an effort to jump the immigration queue. There are a number of problems with the current system, which encourage unfounded claims.

How do I make this assessment that there are many unfounded claims? In the last two years, we have seen that some 58% of the claims for asylum made in Canada were subsequently deemed to be unfounded or not in need of our protection. Many of those claims are actually withdrawn by the claimants. I will give one example.

I suspect if we went to any of our constituencies and asked people what they think is the most likely source of refugee claims in Canada, they might say Iran, North Korea, Somalia or Iraq. In point of fact, it is an EU democracy, Hungary. Last year, there were 2,500 claims. Subsequently, 97% of claimants from that European democracy went on to withdraw or abandon their own claims, indicating to us that they do not need our protection. Why they came and went through the asylum system is a good question. A clue may be found in a criminal investigation into allegations of human trafficking involving many of these claimants who are being victimized, allegedly, by a human trafficking ring.

However, of the 2,500 claims made from that EU democracy, only 3 claims were found to be in need of our protection. Therefore, with six out of ten claims being made, which were subsequently found not to be in need of Canada's protection, and with Canada receiving one of the highest levels of asylum claims in the world with a 60% increase in the number of claims filed between 2006 and 2008, all of this to me indicates that Canada has become, regrettably, a country of choice for those who seek to migrate, not through the normal legal system, but by inventing claims often facilitated by unscrupulous agents and third parties in the immigration industry.

These problems are serious. Even the Auditor General has pointed to the backlogs creating this pull factor for false claims. What we seek to do in these reforms is to create and reinforce balance that respects our obligation to provide due process that is compliant with the charter and with the United Nations conventions on torture and refugees to asylum claimants, balance that does not restrict access to the asylum system for those who believe they have a need for our protection but balance that will provide faster protection decisions for legitimate refugees while providing faster removals for the many who actually come here seeking to abuse Canada's generosity.

How do we propose to do that? First, there would be an initial information gathering interview that would provide earlier contact with an officer from the IRB than claimants now have. Although these officers would not decide on claims, they would be able to identify claims that appear well founded and could recommend expedited processing for them. What this means for people who have managed to escape persecution is that they would not have to wait a year and a half for protection but could receive it in a matter of weeks.

I understand that some claimants may be too traumatized to explain what prompted their claim. That is why during an interview if the officer determines that a claimant is in this situation, he or she could have the discretion to postpone the interview until the claimant could receive the appropriate guidance and support.

The information that officers would gather, coupled with solid facts about the nature of their claim, would lead to hearings at the refugee protection division, staffed by a highly trained, independent public servant, within 60 days. In cases where there is a good reason for delay, there would be that flexibility, but an information gathering interview within eight days and a hearing at the IRB within sixty days would be the norm.

The proposed new system would also include, and this is very important, a full appeal for most claimants. Unlike the appeal process proposed in the past and the one dormant in our current legislation, this refugee appeal division, or RAD, would allow for the introduction of new evidence and, in certain circumstances, provide for an oral hearing.

By the way, that is responding to a demand from some of the opposition parties for a very long time. I should point out that when the Liberal government was in office, three subsequent immigration ministers and the government took the position that they could not implement the RAD until there was a streamlining of the overall asylum system. We are now providing that streamlining. It is time to say yes to the appeal division in the context of a more efficient but still fair system.

I will now turn my attention to one of the more contentious aspects of the legislation, which would be to allow for the designation of certain countries as being safe. The nationals from those countries, under these reforms, would still, and I emphasize still, have the same access they currently do to our asylum system. They would still have access to an appeal by our independent judiciary at the Federal Court. They would still have access to a fully charter compliant process that actually exceeds our international obligations but the consideration of those unfounded claims from designated safe countries would move somewhat more expeditiously, reducing the process by about four months by not allowing them to make two appeals, the first one being to the refugee appeal division.

Someone said that this is unfair or inappropriate. No less authority than the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said here in Ottawa on March 24, “there are indeed safe countries of origin. There are indeed countries in which there is a presumption that refugee claims will probably be not as strong as in other countries”.

He went on to say that we could not deny access to the initial hearing, which we do not in our proposed reforms, and that it was important to have a fair and transparent process for designating these countries, as do most western European asylum systems whose example we are emulating in these reforms.

I wan to be absolutely clear that the proposition is not to create a comprehensive list of all countries designated as safe or unsafe. To the contrary. The criteria would be the following. A country would need to be designated as safe. We propose that this designation process would be in the hands of a panel of senior public servants who would make consultations with UNHCR and would refer to independent human rights supports by NGOs. The criteria would be: if a country is a principal source of asylum claims to Canada, the overwhelming majority of which are unfounded; and if such a country is a signatory to and in compliance with international human rights instruments, which has a strong human rights record and which offers state protection to its citizens, including vulnerable individuals.

Why do we need this? The reason is that periodically we see huge spikes in unfounded claims from democratic countries. Twenty-five years ago it was Portugal, not under a dictatorship, but a social democratic government. Thousands of claims were received and almost all of them were found to be false. What did Canada do? It imposed a visa.

In 2000, it was Chile, not under Pinochet, but a social democratic government, the most stable and prosperous democracy in South America. We received thousands of claims and almost all of them were found not to be in need of Canada's protection. How did we respond? We imposed a visa on Chile. In 2003 and 2004, it was Costa Rica, the most stable and prosperous democracy in Central America. We received thousands of claims and almost all of them were found to be not in need of our protection. Canada imposed a visa. In 1997, it was Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Thousands of claims were received and almost all were unfounded. We imposed a visa. Now I mention the situation with respect to Hungary.

When we see these spikes, it is important to understand that these are not just happening spontaneously. We have solid reason to believe that behind these waves of unfounded claims from democratic countries, there are often networks encouraging, facilitating, advising people, commercial networks, the bottom feeders in the immigration industry or sometimes there is evidence of even criminal networks.

All we are saying is that we need a tool other than the imposition of visas to address those spikes in unfounded claims. I appreciate the support and agreement of the Leader of the Opposition in this respect. Last August, in Saint John, New Brunswick, he said, “I want a legitimate, lawful refugee system that to get to the openness point welcomes genuine refugees”. He then said, Look, there are a number of countries in the world in which we cannot accept a bona fide refugee claim because you do not have cause, you do not have just cause coming from those countries. It is rough and ready but otherwise we will have refugee fraud and nobody wants that, including bona fide refugees”.

The Leader of the Opposition may have gone a little bit too far in suggesting that we deny access to the asylum system to claimants from safe countries, but his general concept is entirely sensible and has been endorsed by virtually every newspaper in the country, for example, that has editorialized on this matter.

As I said, these reforms have been broadly endorsed. Eighty-four percent of Canadians say that the government should take steps to reform the refugee determination system,. Eighty-one percent of Canadians agree that refugee claims should be dealt with more quickly so that genuine refugees can settle in Canada faster and bogus claimants can be sent home more quick. By a margin of four to one, Canadians agree that more needs to be done to quickly remove from Canada people whose refugee claims are unfounded and rejected.

The Toronto Star has said, “the government deserves credit for showing the political will to act on an issue ducked by many of our predecessors”. The Globe and Mail says, “Canada has a crying need for a revamped refugee determination system”. The Montreal Gazette says, ”these reforms are a solid and a sensible attempt to reform the system”. Peter Schowler, former IRB chairman and head of the refugee think-tank at the University of Ottawa says, “the Conservative government has managed to propose a system that is both fast and fair, striking a reasonable balance between the two”. The Canadian Lawyer Magazine says, ”the lawyers in the immigration field probably support these reforms”.

These are balanced, reasonable reforms that I believe all members in all parties can support. I will be open to reasonable amendments that achieve the objective of a fast and fair system when this bill gets to committee. I hope that on this urgent issue we will all put aside partisan politics to some degree to allow our humanitarian tradition to prevail so that we can improve and protect the important humanitarian tradition of providing protection to those in need of it.

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Maurizio Bevilacqua Vaughan, ON

Mr. Speaker, as the minister knows, I have been consulting with my colleagues on the Liberal side extensively on this particular bill and, as with any public policy debate, there are those who are against and those who are for. Even when there are criticisms, they vary.

I have some very specific questions. Is the minister willing to be flexible in the following key areas? To ensure the initial process is procedurally sound and fair and does not cause unnecessary delays at later stages, is the minister willing to look at the feasibility of the timelines in the refugee package, as well as possible provisions to ensure claimants have appropriate legal requirements? On that same point, is the minister willing to provide further clarity around the independence and qualifications of the proposed bureaucratic first line decision makers?

On the issue that he raised, the designated country of origin provision is possibly the most controversial provision of the bill. My colleagues, in their consultations, have brought forth concerns relating to the actual establishment of the designated country of origin list, its criteria, purpose and potential to compromise the protection of legitimate refugees. They have also taken note of the concern cited by the UNHCR, which I am sure the minister is well aware of.

I would also like to know if the minister is open to further measures to increase the transparency and accountability of the designated country of origin process, as well as the currently proposed degree of ministerial discretion.

Finally, is the government willing to look at introducing more flexibility into its proposal on the accessibility of applications on humanitarian and compassionate grounds to ensure that nobody will fall through the cracks?

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

Conservative

Jason Kenney Calgary Southeast, AB

Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague from Vaughan, the official opposition immigration critic and a distinguished member of the House, for addressing this issue with a great degree of responsibility and openness to the need for reform and for having been the first member of this place to raise the need for reform 18 months ago.

He has asked a lot of very substantive questions. I am not sure that I can give him an adequate detailed answer in the moments available, but my general answer to all four questions is, yes. The government is disposed to having a serious dialogue on this at committee to consider and to accept reasonable amendments as long as they meet the objective of a system that is both fast and fair. I think the broad consensus is that we need to get to that.

With respect to the timelines, we propose in the bill an eight day triage interview so that claimants can directly give to a highly trained public servant at the IRB the nature of their claim and the basic facts about their claim without prejudice to the initial hearing that they will have, on average, some 60 days subsequent.

These timelines are actually longer than in many other western countries and their asylum systems. I should also mention that many other countries, like the United Kingdom and the United States, detain nearly 100% of asylum claimants upon arrival. We are not proposing to do that or to increase the use of detention in our system.

However, with respect to timelines, I am open to arguments on this point but I believe that it is essential. If we want to remove the incentive from the tens of thousands of false claims made in the country, the system must be fast. People know they cannot stay in Canada for years and use our public resources if they are not bona fide claimants, which is why I will make an argument at committee that we need to maintain the ambitious timelines.

I look forward to giving the member a very detailed explanation at committee of the independence and the nature of the hiring, training and pay levels that we anticipate for the independent public service decision makers at the refugee protection division of the IRB. I would also invite the member to call before the committee the chairman of the IRB who could give him details on this issue.

With respect to the transparency for the designation of safe countries and the criteria, I would like to signal our openness to reasonable amendments on that point in particular. I would be quite prepared to share with the committee our draft regulations that will frame the process for designating safe countries. I would also be prepared to accept an amendment at committee that clearly states in the legislation what the criteria is for the designation of safe countries.

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12:30 p.m.

NDP

Bill Siksay Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, the minister's speech this morning is very helpful in this discussion.

He was right to point out that citizens of Canada are very active participants in our refugee system. The private sponsorship program is one example of that. However, he knows there are many individuals and organizations in every community in Canada that are actively engaged in refugee resettlement and sponsorship. I am glad the minister said he is open to reasonable amendments to the legislation, because there have been many suggestions around that.

Unfortunately, this is a refugee bill that was presented without significant prior consultation. In the past, the pattern has been that there has been specific consultation on proposed legislation. That did not happen this time.

It has generated many requests to the minister that before we begin this second reading debate, the legislation be referred to committee so that the broadest possible discussion could happen, the broadest number of revisions and suggestions could be considered at committee. Unfortunately, by beginning the second reading debate this morning, the minister has clearly denied that request and said that there will not be that very open and broad discussion at committee.

I am just wondering why the minister has apparently shut the door on that kind of consultation and vigorous discussion of the legislation at committee.

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
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12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Jason Kenney Calgary Southeast, AB

Madam Speaker, regrettably, I have to correct the member.

Many people, including many stakeholders in the field of immigration and media observers have commented on the fact that the government's approach to consultation on this bill prior to its introduction was a model of reaching out and trying to build consensus based on consultation.

Lorne Waldman, no friend of this government, one of the most prominent immigration lawyers in the country, wrote in his op-ed last month, “I have to praise the government for the consultation”.

The Toronto Star, no friend of this government, said that I have “drawn on years of analysis and research by his departmental officials” and I have “also consulted widely and pledged to co-operate with opposition MPs on constructive amendments”.

The Lawyers Weekly said “Bill C-11, tabled in the Commons March 30...won instant praise from the bar for its goal of accelerating the delay-plagued refugee determination process”, et cetera.

I have pages and pages of quotes from stakeholders. There is one stakeholder in this field who, as I mentioned, was even critical of the government's increase in support for refugees and our increased resettlement targets. I cannot account for those who are neither balanced nor objective in this debate.

I am pleased to say that the consultation is probably unprecedented. The member could speak to his party's immigration critic, a very competent critic, who was given a briefing on this bill before it was introduced. I do not know how often that happens. Not very often is the answer.

The bottom line is we are open to reasonable debate and amendments at committee. We are proceeding with this in the normal parliamentary fashion, which is that we have a debate on the principles of the bill at second reading, it then goes to committee where amendments can be considered, and I have already signalled our willingness to accept some, and then it comes back to the House for further consideration at report stage.

There is no curtailing of consultation. To the contrary, I think this is a model of how a minority Parliament can and should work. We hope the NDP will play a constructive role in that.

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12:30 p.m.

Saanich—Gulf Islands
B.C.

Conservative

Gary Lunn Minister of State (Sport)

Madam Speaker, first of all, let me commend the minister. This issue is something I have felt passionate about.

Madam Speaker, you and I would both remember people coming to the west coast years back. We did those people no service or justice as it took years to process them and they all ended up going back after admitting being economic refugees.

I would like the minister to boil down, for the people watching, in real terms, how long it takes under the current system, for people to go through all appeals, and what will happen after the legislation?

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12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Jason Kenney Calgary Southeast, AB

Madam Speaker, it takes at least four to five years for a false claimant to have run through all of the procedures in the current system. Under the new system the claimant would be removed within a year of a failed appeal decision.

We reduce by several years the period during which a false claimant stays in Canada. On the flip side, a bona fide claimant would go from having to wait for 19 months for a protection decision to a few weeks or two to three months maximum under the proposed reforms.

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12:35 p.m.

Liberal

Maurizio Bevilacqua Vaughan, ON

Madam Speaker, it is critical that we examine the legislation before us and ensure that the refugee system reform measures will fix the refugee system challenges our country faces. Let us put the system into its proper context.

Today we have a backlog of 63,000 refugee claims. People in genuine need of protection wait about 19 months for processing claims. We have witnessed the drastic 50% decrease in the number of finalized claims and an almost 50% increase in the cost to finalize a single claim. The estimated cost to taxpayers is approximately $29,000 for processing each claimant.

There was a delay by the Conservative government in filling vacancies at the Immigration and Refugee Board which negatively affected the performance of the board. The minister's 2009-10 report on planning and priorities states that the shortfall in decision makers has contributed to the growth of the pending case inventory and to increased average of processing times. In addition, the Auditor General, in the March 2009 report of the Auditor General of Canada, chapter two, asserts her concern for the need to timely and efficiently appoint and reappoint decision makers to the IRB.

These facts and others made the case for comprehensive refugee reform very obvious and an absolute priority. Although reform of the refugee system is needed, we must ensure that it is fair, efficient and just. While the reform package incorporates some Liberal recommendations such as the refugee appeal division, we have to do due diligence on the bill. After all, there are concerns about what has occurred in the past four years, such as slow processing times and longer wait periods for persons claiming refugee status so, caution is in fact warranted.

Therefore, before any refugee reform legislation is implemented, we will ensure that it meets our standards of procedural fairness, that it is just, fast and efficient and that it does not undermine the trust many people place in our system. Obviously, as the minister alluded to, Canadians cannot afford further poorly implemented band-aid solutions like the imposition of visas on individuals from countries such as Mexico and the Czech Republic as happened last summer. This is the reason we will seek assurances that this reform package is going to meet the highest standard of public policy-making.

In 2004, the former Liberal government implemented changes to the appointment process for the Immigration and Refugee Board. Changes included an advisory panel made up of lawyers, academics and others involved in the refugee process which screened all applicants for the IRB. When the present government came to power, unfortunately it delayed appointments. Everyone knows the result of that has been a ballooning refugee backlog. This is what the bill is also trying to address.

In addition to the growing backlog of applications, there has been concern expressed about the integrity of our system. As I said earlier, recent spikes in claims from certain countries have resulted in an ad hoc use of visa restriction to constrict application volumes. As mentioned earlier, significant examples of this occurred last summer when in response to a spike in claims from Mexico and the Czech Republic, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration imposed visa restrictions on both countries. When we impose visa restrictions, we can jeopardize or strain relationships with countries, in the case of Mexico with one of our North American economic partners. In the case of the Czech Republic, there were also bad feelings created in the European Union as a result.

The government's justification for the bill is focused on streamlining the system to deal with the growing application backlog, providing further flexibility to the minister to deal with the unusual spikes in refugee claims from democratic source countries and streamlining the removal process for unsuccessful applicants.

The bill proposes changes to almost every stage of the in-Canada process. Currently, people with successful claims are waiting an average of 19 months for a decision and it takes an average of four or five years to process and remove an unsuccessful claimant.

Information is currently gathered within 28 days through a personal information form. Under this bill, personal information would be gathered within eight days of a claim through an interview process. It is hoped that this will avoid delays related to incomplete forms and late paperwork. However, there have been significant concerns that this timeline is unrealistic and will result in claimants being unable to get appropriate counsel.

Possible changes around timelines and appropriate legal aid protection should be considered. We cannot afford to have a system where legal counsel is effectively denied and where a poor decision will lead perhaps to a number of time-consuming adjournments.

In the current system, a first-level decision is made by a governor in council appointee within about 18 months. Under the new process, the first-level decision would be made by an IRB public servant within about 60 days. Other countries that have public servant first-level decision makers tend to have higher rates of successful appeals. This can make the process less efficient overall and undermine trust in the refugee determination system.

For instance, the UNHCR has expressed concerns that administrative decision makers in the United Kingdom are inadequately trained and are not producing quality credibility assessments at hearings. Although CIC officials claim that the decision makers in the new system would be senior level and would be highly trained, there is no guarantee of that in this package. The fact that decision makers are housed in the independent IRB may alleviate some concerns regarding their independence, but close assessment of their qualifications, training and hiring processes will be required.

Concerns have also been raised about the 60 day timeline, whether it is realistic and whether it will limit a claimant's ability to obtain representation and compile a proper case within this timeline. Review of these timelines and possible further legal aid support will be required.

There is currently no appeal within the IRB and review is left to the Federal Court. It should be noted that the concept of a refugee appeals division was part of the initial Liberal plan for the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

The bill would create a new refugee appeals division, RAD, staffed by governor in council appointees to review negative first-level decisions. The target for the appeal process in this case would be within four months. Most of the appeals would be paper based, but there would be an opportunity for an oral hearing and the introduction of new evidence that was not available at the time of the first hearing.

In the United Kingdom, 89% of the initial 2007 decisions were appealed and 23% of those initial refusals were overturned. This has led to a huge court backlog of 450,000 cases as of 2008 in the United Kingdom, which may take between 10 to 18 years to resolve. By comparison, in Canada only 1% of asylum appeals are currently successful.

Guidelines are expected to clearly set out when an oral hearing is necessary and when an appeal should proceed in writing. The adjudicator's decision to proceed in writing or not would create an additional administrative decision that could be appealed to the Federal Court.

The primary concern about the introduction of the RAD would be to ensure that the first-level decision is conducted in a way that protects procedural fairness and fundamental justice sufficiently to avoid the RAD becoming another bottleneck in the process.

The system does not currently include a designated country of origin list. The bill would provide the minister with discretion to create designated countries of origin. This is one of the most contentious proposed changes.

The UNHCR has already expressed concern that any such process must take into account the gender and sexual orientation persecution issues in many democratic countries. This may also create diplomatic problems as countries lobby to be put on the list or may be insulted that they have been left off.

UNHCR has previously indicated that safe country of origin practices are acceptable as a procedural tool provided we have safeguards in place. The bill would remove access to the RAD for individuals from designated countries of origin. However, claimants can still have a negative decision reviewed by the Federal Court.

There are still unanswered questions about the process for adding countries to the designated country of origin list. Although we have been assured that this will be used as a last resort to avoid the imposition of visas in countries in good human rights records, issues of fairness and fundamental justice will have to be addressed.

Legal experts are pointing to a major difference between Canada's proposed legislation and that of European countries. The word “safe” does not appear anywhere in the relevant section of Bill C-11. This omission, they say, places too much legal discretion in the hands of the minister and raises serious questions about the law's potential use. It may be appropriate to look at the process by which countries are designated and incorporates some level of independence for selection or parliamentary oversight through amendments.

Currently a claimant has access to multiple appeal processes, including the Federal Court, after each additional rejection. The bill would restrict access to other avenues of appeal for one year following the last negative decision. That means that once the IRB, or RAD, if triggered, has rendered its decision, post decision processes will be barred for one year to allow for removal within that year. Applicants would retain the ability to appeal to the Federal Court. For the information of members, barred avenues include pre-removal risk assessment, section 25, a humanitarian and compassionate grounds application, applications for temporary residence and administrative deferrals of removal.

There would also be a ban on concurrent applications under the refugee protection system and under section 25 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Prior to the first level decision, applicants in the refugee system would be required to select which stream they would like to pursue. Unsuccessful refugee applicants would be banned from section 25 applications for one year from their final IRB determination. After one year from the final IRB decision, the section 25 avenue would again be reopened or open to the applicant. Any time bars to accessing pre-removal assessment or humanitarian and compassionate applications would still need to be reasonable and procedurally fair, as the life, freedom and security of the applicant could be at stake pending the outcome of these decisions.

The humanitarian and compassionate review process operates as an avenue of last resort for persons who do not fit into any of the categories in IRPA to appeal directly to the minister. Limiting access to humanitarian and compassionate grounds could lead to people being deported in the face of humanitarian injustices and safeguards. This will require close review. This issue will require further study to assess the practicality of closing all these avenues of recourse.

The reform package proposes $540.7 million over five years and $85.4 million in ongoing funding. The $540 million is broken down into $324 million over five years for the development of the new refugee system, $126 million to address the backlog and $90 over five years to increase the number of refugees resettled from abroad.

The concern we have, and I have stated this to the minister, is that these funds were not set out in budget 2010 and the Conservatives told us program spending was frozen for the next several years. The minister has stated that these funds are in the fiscal framework, so it will have to be determined what will be cut to take into account these new expenditures. For instance, according to budget 2010, CBSA was actually identified as a source of savings of $54 million in 2011 and $58.4 million in 2012-13 through streamlining and cuts, but had been allocated $142 million in new money under this plan. Questions about transparency and accountability of funding are of concern. We want to ensure that the investment Canadian taxpayers make actually goes where it is supposed to go.

There has been a wide variety of reaction to the tabling of Bill C-11 and even prior to the introduction of the bill. For example, the UN High Commissioner was concerned prior to the introduction of the bill about the countries of origin idea. He stated that the new measures must recognize such things as “sexual preference”, are “grounds for persecution even in democracies”. He also noted other potential issues about gender.

Another individual, Professor Peter Showler, notes that the requirement that the first hearing take place within 60 days after a very quick interview is too quick and impractical. It is impractical in the sense that the refugee will not be able to find a lawyer, inform the lawyer, let the lawyer gather the evidence and present that evidence at the hearing. If that first hearing is not a good hearing, the entire system will unravel fairly quickly. He suggests that 120 days would be a more realistic time frame.

Lastly, the Canadian Council of Refugees does not agree with any of the major changes in the bill, stating that the introduction of a list of “safe countries of origin” is a mistake and has basically criticized the entire approach.

The Liberal Party and the Auditor General of Canada have noted the need to reform the refugee system for a while now. We must address some of the flaws that I have stated, however, there are some positive steps in this bill regarding needed refugee reform.

We must examine the effectiveness and fairness of the timelines for the first decisions so that they are realistic and ensure that the refugees are adequately represented. Refugees may face logistical challenges in acquiring the necessary materials to support their cases due to poor infrastructure in source countries or translation requirements. We must ensure the fundamental justice of vulnerable people involved in the system and ensure a flawed first-level process does not result in a backed up system at the appeal level, like they are struggling with in other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom. It is important that we ensure that all claimants have equal and fair access to the appropriate legal representation.

In the case of the quality of first level decision-makers, it is important that the government provide more specific details about the independence and qualification of the proposed first line decision-makers.

Clause 12 of Bill C-11 would give the minister the authority to designate a country, or part of a country, or class of nationals of a country, according to criteria to be established by regulation. Persons from designated areas of classes may not appeal negative refugee protection decisions to the Refugee Appeal Division. Nor may the minister appeal cases involving these people. Instead applicants and the minister would need to seek leave to appeal the first level decision from the federal court. The designated authority of origin clause may be problematic in its design, as it may present concerns of transparency and accountability.

Several lawyers and academics have raised concerns about the specific wording of the provision in Bill C-11, which refers to “designated countries of origin” rather than “safe countries of origin”. They argue that the current wording provides the minister with too much discretion in designating countries and that it is susceptible to politicization.

Bill C-11 would make several changes to the humanitarian and compassionate grounds for foreign nationals in Canada. For instance, according to subclause 4(1), the minister may not examine requests to remaining Canada's permanent residents on humanitarian and compassionate grounds if less than 12 months have passed since the final negative IRB decision.

It is obvious that we have presented a credible case for changes to a number of elements of Bill C-11. As Canadians, we take pride in the fact that our country offers a safe haven to so many who are victims of fear, discrimination or persecution in their home countries. Throughout this parliamentary debate, our focus must be on creating the best possible refugee system.

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12:55 p.m.

Calgary Southeast
Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney Minister of Citizenship

Madam Speaker, I commend my colleague, the hon. member for Vaughan, for his thoughtful and constructive remarks. I have a couple of comments more than questions.

First, his suggestion that the current problems in the system are the result of a lack of appointments too the IRB by this government, I would like to respond to that. In point of fact there has been a permanent backlog in the system. On average, the backlog has been 40,000 cases.

When our government took office, we inherited, from our predecessors, a backlog of some 20,000 asylum cases pending decisions at the RPD. In the subsequent three years, there was a huge growth in the number of claims. In fact, the IRB, when fully staffed and fully funded as it is, can finalize about 25,000 protection decisions a year. Between 2006 and 2009, the number of claims exceeded the maximum processing capability of the IRB by about 20,000 cases.

Therefore, we inherited a backlog of 20,000. About 20,000 cases in the current backlog are as a result of an excess of claims over the fully funded capacity of the IRB to render decisions.

It is true, however, that a percentage, about one-third of the current backlog, could be attributed to a temporary shortfall in appointments, which was not arbitrary. It was the result of our government accepting a more rigorous pre-screening process.

I would like to commend the member for York West, former minister of citizenship and immigration, for her positive improvements to the pre-screening process for IRB members. I think we enhanced those.

In fact now, only 10% of the people who apply for membership to the IRB are actually referred to the minister for consideration. Since I became minister, some 16 months ago, I have recommended, and cabinet has accepted, the appointment of 65 new members, 34 reappointments, for 99 appointments to the IRB, and the refugee protection division is now at 99%, 126 of 127 members. Therefore, we did everything we could. The basic architecture of the system needs to change.

I have one other comment. On the issue of public service decision-makers at the refugee protection division, what we have proposed is exactly the same thing that exists on the other side of the IRB, the immigration division, which is what the Liberal government adopted as a structure for decision-making when it brought in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in 2002. Essentially we are following the template of our predecessors in that respect.

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12:55 p.m.

Liberal

Maurizio Bevilacqua Vaughan, ON

Madam Speaker, I thank the minister for his continuous consultation throughout the process. We may disagree on who is responsible for the backlog, but one thing we do agree on, which is extremely important, is the fact that the status quo is not an option and that improvements need to be made to regain confidence of the refugee system that simply does not work. It does not work for the refugees. It does not work for our reputation as a country. It is simply a system that we really need to roll up our sleeves and make improvements on.

Toward that end, I want to take this opportunity to thank so many members of the Liberal caucus who throughout the process have given me input on this area. I was very glad that earlier on, after the minister delivered his remarks, I brought to his attention four major points with which my caucus was concerned. They related to a number of issues from the safe country of origin to the quality and independence of the decision makers to their concern about the decisions being hasty decisions, which would result in bad decisions that perhaps would create even further backlog within the system as well as some of the concerns raised in reference to the one year ban on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

The openness of the minister on those four issues augers well for further parliamentary debate. Ultimately our goal is to build the best refugee system possible.

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1 p.m.

Liberal

Alan Tonks York South—Weston, ON

Madam Speaker, I was particularly interested, and I think the House would be interested, with respect to the safe country of origin classification as it applies to refugees. The member mentioned issues such as sexual orientation and the issues related to gender, but one thing that has come up, and I am sure the minister would be aware of this, is that those who have been involved in persecution as a result of their role in fighting drug cartels in Latin America and the Caribbean are coming under that similar umbrella. It seems they are being caught up. I wonder if the member would like to comment with respect to the implications of that.

Here we have people who are standing up in their own countries, in law enforcement fashion, and are being persecuted and in fact victimized. They have applied for refugee status. My worry, and I am sure the House's worry, would be that they would be precluded. I hope I am wrong in that respect. I hope I am wrong that the minister does not intend that. I would just like to hear either a confirmation or affirmation with respect to the principles that we are going to apply.

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1 p.m.

Liberal

Maurizio Bevilacqua Vaughan, ON

Madam Speaker, I am quite certain that any present or future minister would view this particular issue in light of the definition of refugee. If in fact it falls within those parameters, then of course they certainly deserve to be looked at.

I think the hon. member is quite sensitive to this particular issue because he clearly understands that there are people in many countries who stand up for justice. Sometimes when they do stand up for justice against very powerful organizations, they risk their lives and feel persecuted in their own country.

The hon. member has raised this issue in this past. It is an issue that I am sure this minister and other ministers will look at as they look what defines a refugee and the changing dynamics that are occurring in countries. The world is forever changing.

I will just end by saying that the system needs to adapt to the new realities.

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1 p.m.

NDP

Bill Siksay Burnaby—Douglas, BC

Madam Speaker, I wanted to ask the member about the refugee appeal division.

We have heard about a refugee appeal division for quite some time. It was part of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that was passed in this House in 2001, but a Liberal government and the Conservative government have refused to implement it. There were all kinds of excuses. At one point it was said to be too expensive to implement that particular appeal, even though information that was provided said that it was not a particularly expensive level of appeal to establish in the existing refugee legislation.

I would just like to ask the member why he thinks we should have any confidence that the new proposal for a refugee appeal division would be implemented, when it has been the law since 2001, and no government has actually put it in place?

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April 26th, 2010 / 1 p.m.

Liberal

Maurizio Bevilacqua Vaughan, ON

Madam Speaker, as a member who has been around this House for 21 years, there has to be a sense of operating in good faith and there has to be an element of trust. If that leaves parliamentary debate, if that leaves the essence of what public office is truly about, then we have a bigger issue to deal with.

What I will say is that in conversations with the present minister of immigration and past ministers of immigration, including the members for York West and Eglinton—Lawrence, I have always been a strong advocate of the refugee appeal division because I think that refugees should have a right to have access to appeal the decision rendered at the first level. I think it is a step in the right direction. It is something that we discussed a great deal. I am glad that it has been included in this bill.