House of Commons Hansard #108 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was refugees.

Topics

Procedure and House Affairs
Committees of the House
Routine Proceedings

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Barry Devolin

(Motion agreed to)

The House resumed from March 26 consideration of the motion that Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee, and of the amendment.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

12:05 p.m.

NDP

Craig Scott Toronto—Danforth, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am privileged to rise for my inaugural speech in the House of Commons since my election as the member of Parliament for Toronto—Danforth.

Permit me to begin by first thanking the people of Toronto—Danforth for having placed their trust in me in the March 19 by-election. I recognize that the bar has been set very high, in that I have both the distinct honour and the distinct challenge of succeeding a truly great member of the House, the Hon. Jack Layton, whose untimely passing this past August 22 triggered an outpouring of emotion among Canadians such as our country has rarely known.

I pledge to represent the vibrant community of Toronto—Danforth tirelessly, with integrity and following the example set by my predecessor. Like Jack Layton, I will do my utmost to contribute to Parliament both constructively, working with others to secure just and sensible results and by resolutely defending the progressive values of the people of Toronto—Danforth.

In that spirit, I turn now to address the substance of the legislation before the House on second reading of Bill C-31. This omnibus bill is intended to amend a variety of existing statutes, most notably, IRPA, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and the Balanced Refugee Reform Act.

The Balanced Refugee Reform Act is itself mostly a far-ranging effort to amend IRPA and the ink is still wet on it, in that it only enters into force at the end of June.

It is important to recall that the Balanced Refugee Reform Act was ultimately a product of hard work and mutual compromise from all corners of the House, having been adopted with eventual all party support. Less than a year after it achieved a majority in the House last spring, the government is abandoning compromise and is steamrolling ahead with its own particular uncompromising view of refugee policy.

In support of this characterization of the government's Bill C-31 legislative initiative, allow me to briefly discuss a few, and I emphasize only a few, of the disturbing additions or changes to refugee law that Bill C-31 will usher in if it is permitted to pass.

First, the minister, if he deems it to be in the public interest, may characterize a refugee claimant, or refugee claimants, as having arrived in Canada irregularly. This decision would turn these claimants into designated foreign nationals, which I will subsequently simply refer to DFNs. Crucially and shockingly this designation as DFNs would subject them to automatic detention.

In contrast to regular refugee claimants whose detention must be reviewed after 48 hours and again in 7 days and then every 30 days thereafter, these irregular claimants could remain for 12 months before there was a first review of their detention. Indeed, for good measure, Bill C-31 explicitly adds a provision saying that review would be precluded before the end of 12 months. Thereafter, their detention would be reviewed in six-month increments.

Little could run further afoul of the international refugee law's strong presumption against detention which requires a stringent necessity test to be made and of the international refugee law's requirement that the necessity of detention be subject to early and then frequent review.

Under the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, a refugee claimant has access to a full appeal to a Refugee Appeal Division panel. However, now, under Bill C-31, a designated foreign national, this second-class refugee created by the act, could no longer access the appeal process established in the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. If the first instance decision maker, and that is the Refugee Protection Division, denied the person's refugee claim, not only would he or she have no right of appeal, but he or she would be subject to immediate deportation.

It is true that a DFN refugee claimant still may seek what is known as a judicial review, but it is important to note, in light of the answers being given in the House before the break, that this is not the same as an appeal. It is a much more limited process. It is found in the current law. It removes the automatic stay of deportation found in the current law so that in many, if not most, cases judicial review will occur after a person has been removed from the country.

What if a designated foreign national is successful in the refugee claim and is recognized as a refugee? Surely at that stage one would think Bill C-31 would provide that the successful claimant would be treated like any other refugee, but unbelievably, no. To start with, the designated foreign national who is recognized as a refugee continues to wear that designation as a state imposed badge of dishonour. He or she is subjected to reporting requirements to which other refugees are not subjected.

More atrociously, an accepted refugee who started out as a designated foreign national cannot apply to become a permanent resident of Canada for five years after being found to be a refugee. This could result in the refugee not becoming a permanent resident for six or seven years, assuming there will be processing delays with some applications. Compare this to a regular refugee who is actually required to apply for permanent residence status before 60 days are up.

One might ask, what is the big deal? If a refugee gets to stay in Canada, what difference does it make if the individual has permanent resident status or some sort of refugee status? One huge difference is that the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act requires that a person be a permanent resident before the person is able to sponsor family members, such as the person's spouse, children, or parents, to immigrate to Canada. Thus, under Bill C-31 irregular refugees would have no hope of reuniting with family in Canada for at least five years.

Currently, family class applications in this country are often processed at a snail's pace. It is not uncommon for it to take three years for a child or a spouse to be admitted and sometimes up to six years for parents. It is no stretch to say that a refugee who started out as a designated foreign national may have to wait 10 years for family members to join him or her.

If that is not enough, a designated foreign national refugee will not even be able to travel outside Canada to spend time with family, for example, in a country other than the country of origin which the refugee fears going back to. Why is that? Bill C-31 decrees that such a refugee will not be given travel documents until he or she becomes a permanent resident, that is, until at least five years have passed, despite the fact that the refugee convention requires that travel documents be issued to refugees once they are “lawfully staying” in the host country. Fortress Canada thus becomes prison Canada for the designated foreign national refugee. If he were still alive, Kafka could not have written Bill C-31 better if he tried.

It does not end there. The DFN provisions apply retroactively to March 2009. After Bill C-31 becomes law, the minister could decide to designate the Tamil refugees who arrived on the Ocean Lady in October 2009 and the Sun Sea in August 2010 as irregulars. The only part of a DFN regime that does not apply retroactively is the detention regime.

Finally, there is the stunning change in the law with respect to cessation of refugee status. This basically means that after the government applies to have a refugee status removed, that simultaneously removes the permanent resident status, which subjects the individual to being removed from the country.

Time does not permit me to go into many other problems with the bill, such as problematic changes to the safe countries regime, the implications for children, the radical cuts in the time that refugee claimants have to prepare their cases, and the advent of a biometrics regime which comes with no privacy safeguards and allows Canada to share this data with other countries.

There is much in the bill that requires close and exacting scrutiny once it gets to committee. I hope that government members along with the opposition will take the committee process seriously and not back the government in what is ultimately repressive legislation. At some point, MPs have to stand up for their conscience as well as for their constituents.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

12:15 p.m.

Liberal

Kirsty Duncan Etobicoke North, ON

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the hon. member on his maiden speech.

In some countries, many human rights violations remain undocumented or poorly documented. They may occur in isolated areas beyond the reach of human rights groups, journalists and others. Indigenous groups or racial minorities who represent a small percentage of the population may face serious abuses which are under-reported.

For cultural reasons, victims may be reluctant or even unwilling to report the violations. This may be true for women and girls. They may face stereotypes and taboos which make them fearful of speaking out about gender-based violence, discrimination and other human rights concerns.

Does the hon. member think that the patterns of human rights abuse can and do often change quickly, and that conditions may in fact deteriorate more quickly than the process of government designation could accommodate and respond to, as happened in Kenya in 2008?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:15 p.m.

NDP

Craig Scott Toronto—Danforth, ON

Mr. Speaker, the preface of the member's question does a great job of setting out the issue underlying the question.

There are at least two aspects of Bill C-31 that come up against the reality the member described. One is the designation of so-called safe countries. The notion that there is a safe country is a problematic concept, but the idea of quickly changing conditions makes it even more problematic. The fact that Bill C-31 removes the notion of a panel of advisers to the minister on determining what countries will be safe makes it even worse.

Under the cessation regime, the minister or the government could apply for cessation, which could be for a period in time when things had changed; the government comes on the scene when it thinks things are safe in order to send some permanent residents back to the country, but then conditions could change again. The idea of changing conditions has to be taken into account.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:15 p.m.

NDP

Jinny Sims Newton—North Delta, BC

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member on his inaugural speech, which was very well executed. I look forward to working with the member.

This particular legislation has all kinds of pitfalls. It is difficult to know where to start, but I will start with the children. Under this legislation, when some of the most vulnerable people from around the world come to our shores, we are going to say to them that we are going to put them in detention, basically prison. That is what detention is. People will not have the freedom to move around and will not have travel documents.

We heard the minister explain previously that for children who are under 16 years of age, the parents can choose to relinquish them to the state, to the province, or to keep them in detention. For parents, there is no choice. It is so disturbing that that is where our immigration and refugee policy is going.

What kind of impacts are these detentions going to have on children?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:15 p.m.

NDP

Craig Scott Toronto—Danforth, ON

Mr. Speaker, I congratulate the member on her recent appointment as the critic for immigration.

There are numerous implications for children spread throughout Bill C-31, and I cannot touch on all of them.

My hon. colleague referred to one of them, a kind of Sophie's choice situation for the parents, about whether children under the age of 16 will stay with them in detention or be relinquished to the state.

Another issue is the age of 16 years. International human rights law generally, and the convention on the rights of the child in particular, indicates that adulthood starts at 18 years of age. This legislation is particularly problematic in that the age limit of 16 years has been set.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier in my answer about cessation and family reunification issues, when permanent resident status takes five years to achieve, that also is an issue. Often a family member, a child or a parent, will make it to Canada and then will not be able to see other family members for at least five years.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

12:20 p.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure to rise in the House today to speak to the importance of Bill C-31, protecting Canada's immigration system act. This legislation would improve the Balanced Refugee Reform Act by providing new measures which would ensure a fast and fairer refugee determination process.

Our Conservative government has increased the number of refugees that will resettle every year by welcoming an additional 2,500 people for a total of 14,500 individuals. Canada resettles more refugees than any other G20 nation. The fact is our refugee system is open to abuse and this is undermining Canadians' faith in our generous system. Bill C-31 would put an end to the systematic exploitation of our asylum system and prevent abuse of Canadians' generosity and goodwill. It is in the best interests of all fair-minded, hard-working taxpaying Canadians that this House should pass Bill C-31. Let us examine the reasons this bill is so important.

Bill C-31 would restore the integrity of the Canadian asylum system by enhancing opportunities for bona fide refugees to have their claims addressed in a timely manner. Currently, the number of false claims, namely from democratic countries in the European Union, is overwhelming our system. The sheer volume of claimants precludes officials from focusing their attention on those legitimate refugees who are in true need of our assistance.

It astounds me that in 2011 the number of refugee claims from the EU was greater than the number of claims from Africa and Asia. Indeed, 23%, or almost one-quarter of all claims, now come from EU nationals. Canada's top source country for refugee claims is not a country in Africa or Asia, but Hungary. Moreover, virtually all refugee claims made by EU nationals are abandoned, withdrawn or rejected. These bogus claims cost hard-working taxpaying Canadians an outrageous $170 million per year. For this reason, Bill C-31 would improve the system by recognizing that there are qualitative differences among countries and their general attitudes toward human rights and the rule of law. The bill responds to the differences by designating some countries as safe.

Under Bill C-31, the factors that would lead a country to be designated as safe would be clearly outlined both in law and in regulations. The most important factors are objective in that they refer to the actual acceptance rates of claims from a given country. In other words, the designation of a country as safe would be based on the results of decisions taken by asylum claimants themselves, such as the rate at which they abandon their own claims as well as the decisions rendered by the independent Immigration and Refugee Board.

Unlike the Balanced Refugee Reform Act which has quantitative and qualitative criteria specified only in regulation, Bill C-31 would enshrine these factors in legislation, leaving objectively verifiable quantitative factors to be set out in a ministerial order. As such, the criteria used to prompt a review of a country's designation would become more transparent and accountable than they would have been under previous legislation. For example, quantitative factors would be specified in a ministerial order and include assessments where: 60% or more of total asylum claims from a country are withdrawn or abandoned by the claimants; 75% or more of total asylum claims from a country are rejected by the independent Immigration and Refugee Board. These qualitative factors enshrined in the form of legislation would look to universally accepted democratic principles such as whether the safe country has an independent judicial system, practises basic democratic rights and freedoms and has political and legal mechanisms to redress infringements of those rights and freedoms, and/or allows civil society organizations to exist and flourish.

As I have outlined above, this bill would repair our broken asylum system by stemming the flood of obvious baseless applications and putting in place a process that can ensure a fast and fair determination of legitimate applications simply by distinguishing between safe democratic countries and states with oppressive brutal regimes.

This is also a piece of legislation that respects the rule of law by affording all claimants, including failed claimants from safe countries, the right to judicial review. Every failed claimant would have access to at least one level of appeal. People deemed in need of protection would not be returned to the country from which they fled. Furthermore, under Bill C-31 the majority of refugee claimants would gain access to an additional level of appeal, specifically the refugee appeal division, for the first time.

Canadians pride themselves on being a compassionate society, as well as fair-minded and just, and they would not tolerate repatriation of foreign nationals knowing that persecution and harm would befall them, so the appeal mechanism can respond to uniquely exceptional circumstances. At the same time, this cropping of the current massive applications for appeals would curb the abuse of Canadians' generosity and prevent contempt of our legal system.

Furthermore, under this legislation, Canada would remain a safe haven for genuine refugees seeking asylum. However, claimants who have been involved in acts of serious criminality will not be welcomed into this country. Whereas the current system bases serious criminality on the more arbitrary measure of the length of jail sentence imposed, Bill C-31 rightly bases serious criminality on the specific crime the claimant actually committed, as defined under the Canadian Criminal Code.

This is also in line with the definition of serious criminality under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which states that a serious criminal is a person who has been convicted of a crime which, under Canadian law, is punishable by a jail sentence of at least 10 years. As such, political prisoners are not and will not be barred from making refugee claims.

Reforms to the Canadian refugee system are much needed and enjoy broad-based support. This government has listened carefully to Canadians who seek restoration of a fair and balanced refugee system that protects Canadian values of integrity, compassion and fair play. I submit that the enactment of this proposed bill would go a long way in securing those values.

Let us listen to what others are saying. Our colleague, the former NDP immigration critic from Vancouver Kingsway, has recognized the flaws in the current system. He has spoken of the need to “build a system that has a fast and fair determination process”. Indeed, he went further and acknowledged:

And that’s something that I’ll give [the Minister] credit for. I do think that’s what his intention has been all along. And we all want to work towards that.

Furthermore, a Globe and Mail editorial dated February 17, 2012 reads:

The legislation rightly focuses on weeding out claimants who are not genuine, and stemming the flow of asylum seekers from countries such as Mexico and Hungary that are democracies with respect for basic rights and freedoms...

Fast-tracking refugee claims from these countries, and ensuring failed claimants are promptly deported, is an excellent way to ensure Canada does not become a magnet for abuse.

In conclusion, I am thankful for being given the opportunity to speak to the merits of Bill C-10. I would like to thank my esteemed colleague, the hon. minister, for introducing this important piece of legislation and for being in the House during this debate. It is in the best interests of legitimate asylum seekers that we should pass this bill to bring much-needed change to our broken asylum system, and it is in the best interests of Canadians as well. I urge all members of the House to join me in giving support to Bill C-31's passage.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

12:25 p.m.

Liberal

Kevin Lamoureux Winnipeg North, MB

Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Party has a number of concerns and in fact suggests that there are serious issues with this bill and that it is somewhat fundamentally flawed, which results in a need to bring forward amendments that we hope the government will be sympathetic to.

One of the amendments is in recognition of how important the issue of a safe country list is. At one time the current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism acknowledged that in order to have a country put on the safe country list, it would be important to have an advisory committee to recommend it. For whatever reason—and many would suggest that is it is because there is now a majority Conservative government—the government has decided that the minister no longer needs the advisory committee in order to assign a country to the safe country list.

I am wondering if the member can explain to the House why the government has changed its opinion on having an advisory board made up of professional people who understand human rights to recommend which countries should be on or off the safe country list.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

Mr. Speaker, I do not know if the member is seeking to deliberately create fear in the immigration system, but simply put, some of the criteria that define safe countries are that they have independent judicial systems, practise democratic rights and freedoms and have political and legal mechanisms to redress infringements of those rights and freedoms.

Basically, the criteria are defined as to what a safe country is and is not, and those are what the minister will operate under. The limits are clearly laid out, and a safe country is well defined.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:30 p.m.

NDP

Craig Scott Toronto—Danforth, ON

Mr. Speaker, I wonder if the hon. member would do us the honour of speaking a bit more on a safe country with respect to the whole question of designating an entire country as safe when we know that in many situations, including examples in eastern Europe that he was relying on, there may be vulnerable populations worthy of receiving refugee status. The situation with respect to the Roma in countries like Hungary is deeply problematic. Gay and lesbian groups within Mexico will tell us that it is not a safe country throughout Mexico for them.

Why has the government removed the possibility of designating only part of a country or sectoral groups and adopted this incrediblly broad-brush approach?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

Mr. Speaker, simply put, safe country designation, as it is defined, is pretty clear. Basically, it seeks to stem the abuse of the asylum system. If people from foreign countries want to immigrate to Canada, they are more than welcome to go through that process, but what we are seeing now is that a huge flow of people want to immigrate to this country in a faster way, or maybe through the side door, and we are trying to stem that tide by having the safe country designation.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:30 p.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, as other opposition MPs have mentioned in regard to this question, it really is difficult to designate a country as a safe country, even with the criteria that my hon. friend has put forward. Some countries will have the apparatus that appears to be representing the rule of law, but some populations within that democracy can still be systematically excluded from access to those rights.

I refer to a recent quote from Mr. Justice Hughes in the Federal Court. This was a case that just came down February 22 of this year, Hercegi v. Canada, in which Mr. Justice Hughes said:

...the evidence is overwhelming that Hungary is unable presently to provide adequate protection to its Roma citizens.

I ask my hon. friend to comment on this kind of specific problem.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Bob Zimmer Prince George—Peace River, BC

Mr. Speaker, once again, our bill seeks to stem that huge flow that is seeking to abuse our asylum system.

Certainly, as the hon. member mentioned, there are other situations. They can be addressed within a particular act. Just because a country is designated a safe country does not mean they do not have other means to get to Canada. They do. They have other options open to them. It does not mean we are closing the door to them, but it would just be done in a different way.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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12:30 p.m.

Liberal

Sean Casey Charlottetown, PE

Mr. Speaker, last Tuesday some of us in the House—certainly the members of the Liberal caucus—celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This will be the theme of my remarks today, for it really does provide a context for what is happening with the bill before the House, which at its core is purposely mean-spirited, divisive and anti-Canadian.

Last week Canadians from all walks of life and from all parts of Canada celebrated the anniversary of bringing our Constitution home from the United Kingdom. Canadians support the charter, and for good reason; the charter has consistently protected the rights and freedoms of individuals from an overreaching government, and it has been a source of pride for most Canadians.

Canada has traditionally punched above its weight in protecting our citizens and the human rights and freedoms of all citizens, yet I fear the bill will add to the growing concerns that Canada is turning its back on those in our world who are less fortunate.

The United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees ensures that those who are being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion can seek refuge in regions that will protect their basic human rights and freedoms.

As our world becomes more connected through social media, it is harder to turn away from the plight of our neighbours, yet human rights violations are not always as visible as the ones we are watching in Syria. That is why this bill, which gives the ultimate power to the minister to place countries on safe lists, cannot be supported. No matter what political stripe, the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism should not have the power to turn away a person seeking refuge due to his or her country of origin. No matter what their political stripe, the Government of Canada does not have the right to detain those seeking refuge for a year without review.

As a democratic country, we need to ensure that refugees are heard in an efficient manner that protects their basic rights and freedoms. I agree that the system can be improved, but the power to accept or deny someone cannot lie with one person. There needs to be more oversight, and the process needs to be expedited to ensure refugees and their families can begin to integrate into our country.

I stand today urging for a balance between protecting human rights and freedoms and modernizing our refugee system.

We have been leaders in the past and we can be leaders again, but not if the bill is supported in its current form.

I have been proud to stand as a Canadian knowing the key role that the Canadian government has played in the introduction and development of the concepts of peacekeeping and the responsibility to protect, yet the bill signals an abrupt shift away from the spirit and intention of those concepts. As it stands, the bill is not only anti-refugee; it is anti-due process, anti-justice, and violates the charter. I have no doubt that elements of the bill will be struck down by the courts.

The government knows that. It knows that locking someone up for 12 months without due process and all the rights afforded by the charter is unconstitutional.

Section 7 of the charter provides that:

Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.

Section 8 assures that:

Everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.

Section 9 gives everyone the right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned.

Section 10 gives rights to those who have been arrested or detained, and the key word is “detained” in the context of this particular piece of legislation. In section 10(c), those rights include the right to have the validity of that detention determined and to be released if the detention is unlawful. It could not be clearer.

The sections of the charter that I have just referenced make it explicitly clear that there are elements of the bill, including the detaining of refugees for 12 months, that are a direct violation of the charter, and the minister knows this. The government knows that the charter applies to everyone, not just some, on Canadian territory, including those who arrive by plane or by boat at our ports, including those in transit in our territorial waters. It is called the rule of law.

It is troubling to witness such behaviour from a government that claims to value the rule of law, what the law governs. Even when we may not like it or we have mixed feelings about a particular law or court ruling, we cannot have a situation where the government picks and chooses the laws it likes and circumvents others with which it does not agree.

I cannot support this bill that would strip a refugee's residency status if the situation in his or her home country stabilizes under section 19. This is not democracy. We should be increasing the protection of the most vulnerable but the government seems to think we should turn our backs on them.

Equally troubling is the talk about freedom and liberty from those who stand fully prepared to take away constitutional rights and usurp the rules of law. We have rules and protections. I am grateful we have the charter that checks the power of government.

The day is coming and it is coming soon when the law will prevail, as it always does. I look forward to the day when Canada is once again respected and is a place that will once again value justice, equality, decency, unity and compassion.