House of Commons Hansard #132 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was refugees.

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Message from the Senate

June 1st, 2012 / 10:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Speaker Andrew Scheer

I have the honour to inform the House that a message has been received from the Senate informing this House that the Senate has passed the following bill to which the concurrence of the House is desired: S-7, An Act to amend the Criminal Code, the Canada Evidence Act and the Security of Information Act.

The House resumed from May 17 consideration of 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, as reported (with amendments) from the committee, and of the motions in Group No. 1.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

10:05 a.m.

Cypress Hills—Grasslands
Saskatchewan

Conservative

David Anderson Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and for the Canadian Wheat Board

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased today to rise in the House to speak to Bill C-31, the protecting Canada's immigration system act, and we are speaking at report stage.

Unfortunately, we are debating what I would call irresponsible opposition amendments that try to gut this important piece of legislation. I would like to take a few minutes to explain what the negative consequences would be if the NDP and the Liberals succeeded in delaying and stopping this bill from going forward.

Bill C-31, once passed, will make Canada's asylum system much faster and fairer. The most negative and important consequence of the opposition amendments would be that legitimate refugees would have to wait longer to receive Canada's much needed protection. Under the current system, it takes almost two years for a decision. Our Conservative government believes that is unfair and unacceptable. That is one of the main reasons we have introduced Bill C-31.

By introducing and supporting the opposition amendments, the NDP and Liberals are telling true refugees fleeing war and persecution around this world, many who literally have scars on their backs, that they should wait longer than is necessary to receive Canada's protection and for the certainty and piece of mind that comes with that protection. This is truly shameful.

The measures in Bill C-31 unquestionably complement Canada's proud humanitarian tradition of providing protection for those who are most in need of it. That tradition manifests itself in many internationally recognized ways. For example, Canada is one of only about 20 countries in the world that resettle refugees. In fact, we annually resettle about one out of every ten refugees who are resettled globally, more than almost any country in this world. That is something that we can be proud of. The government has pledged to continue this tradition. By 2013, Canada will resettle up to 14,500 refugees. That is an increase of 2,500 refugees since 2010.

On top of this, every year Canada grants protection inside the country to thousands of asylum seekers. Bill C-31 will continue to move forward Canada's strong humanitarian tradition. With that being said, no one should doubt that there are many concerns with the way that our current refugee system operates. We know there is significant abuse of the system and of Canadians' generosity. Bill C-31 would help address those problems.

Let us take a look at the facts. In 2011, 62% of all asylum claims were either abandoned or withdrawn by the claimant or rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Far too many taxpayer dollars are being spent on such claims. Indeed, the average failed refugee claim costs taxpayers around $55,000.

Another concern is the recent spike in refugee claims from countries that are generally considered to be safe. These are countries with traditions similar to our own with respect to human rights and commitments to the rule of law. For instance, Canadians would be interested to know that last year nationals from European Union countries accounted for about a quarter of all refugee claims made in Canada. That is over 5,800 claims from the European Union in 2011, more than the claims that are received from Asia or Africa.

What is more, virtually all of the asylum claims made from EU countries were abandoned or withdrawn by claimants, which is their own admission that they were bogus, or they were rejected by the independent IRB. The cost to hard-working Canadian taxpayers for those unfounded claims is at least $170 million per year.

These facts speak for themselves. A large number of asylum seekers in Canada are simply not in need of our protection. Instead of waiting patiently to come to Canada through the proper immigration process, too many of these people are trying to use our asylum system as a back door to gain entry into Canada. The very unfortunate result is a clogged refugee system where those who legitimately need protection must wait far too long before we can process their claims.

Canadians are generous. They want to provide protection to those who are genuinely in need. However, I can tell the House that Canadians have no tolerance for those who blatantly seek to abuse that generosity. We need to send a clear message on behalf of Canadians on this, that being that if they are not in need of our protection they will be sent home quickly.

I would like to try offering an explanation about why the current system results in so many unfounded claims.

To begin, too much of our time is spent on processing applications from people whose applications for asylum are ultimately rejected. This has contributed to a significant backlog of cases at the Immigration and Refugee Board. Currently, about 42,000 claims are pending. In a nutshell, the current system is too slow, not only for our refugees who are genuinely in need of our protection, but also for dealing with bogus claimants who seek to abuse our system and our generosity.

Long wait times make Canada a much more attractive target for those whose only motivation for seeking asylum is to take advantage of our many generous social benefits while they wait for a decision. Ultimately, again, it is hard-working Canadian taxpayers who end up footing that very expensive bill.

Under the current system, claimants can access taxpayer-funded health care and claim social assistance for several years while their claim is still pending. On average, it can take up to four and a half years from the time an initial claim is made until a failed claimant is removed from Canada. In some cases, this process has taken more than 10 years. Every Canadian I know would say that this is clearly unacceptable.

The situation is also far too cumbersome which makes it more vulnerable to abuse. Bogus claimants who seek to abuse our system know they have many avenues and many different layers of recourse. They know they can further prolong their time here by seeking these different avenues of recourse. That is precisely what many of them do to further delay their removal from Canada.

The NDP members have praised the goals of this bill. They have said that the system needs to be faster and that more needs to be done to crack down on those who abuse the system. I will quote the NDP immigration critic and MP for Vancouver Kingsway who had this to say:

I think what we need to do is build a system that has a fast and fair determination process. 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. We don’t want endless dragging on of this stuff because refugees, when they come here, you know, they do qualify for basic sustenance...it is at the cost of the Canadian taxpayer.... We want a fast, fair system where we can give a sanctuary to people who need it quickly and we can weed out the people who don’t have valid claims, get them through a fair process. And if they’re not valid at the end of the day, deport them out of Canada swiftly.

The Liberal immigration critic and MP for Winnipeg North also has supported these goals. He said, “I support the need to make quick decisions in regards to refugees.”

Countless others support Bill C-31 as well. Immigration experts, lawyers, settlement organizations and average Canadians all overwhelmingly support Bill C-31. They have all said that something needs to be done. Our Conservative government has now taken action.

I am not surprised, but I am disappointed, to see that while the opposition members say one thing, they have done quite another. Instead of working in good faith with our government to pass legislation that is in the best interest of Canadians and genuine refugees, they have chosen to play politics with this issue.

The measures in Bill C-31 would help protect the integrity of our immigration system. At the same time, they would not change the fact that Canada's refugee determination system remains one of the most generous in the world. If the measures contained in Bill C-31 are implemented, Canada will be able to develop a faster, fairer refugee system that better protects those who genuinely need our protection. We will also be able to remove bogus asylum claimants from the country faster. Too many taxpayer dollars continue to be spent on bogus applications from people who are not in need of protection.

It is for these reasons that I implore all members in this House to vote against the NDP and Liberal amendments. I ask them to support Bill C-31 and help to ensure its speedy passage.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

10:10 a.m.

NDP

Dennis Bevington Western Arctic, NT

Mr. Speaker, I listened to my colleague's speech with some interest. I disagree with his analysis of our position. I think that he is being disingenuous when he talks about the NDP supporting a bill that turns around a bill that we worked on in the last Parliament where we made compromises and came to conclusions. The former Bill C-11 was supported by all parties. However, this bill turns around many of the things that were included in that bill.

Why does the hon. member think that in the short period of a year and a half we should turn around our thinking on an important issue such as refugees and the changes that are required to ensure that their part in Canada is well protected?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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10:15 a.m.

Conservative

David Anderson Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Mr. Speaker, the only turnaround that is taking place here is the NDP members' support for the bill and their position on it. It is my understanding that in committee they supported Conservative amendments. They supported at least two of the amendments that Conservatives made at committee. That would lead us to believe that they were fairly happy with the bill and the way that it was going and that they supported the direction we are taking, as I quoted members who supported its concepts. Now they are making 85 amendments in the House, trying to completely destroy the bill.

The member across the way talks about a turnaround. There is no turnaround on this side of the House. We stand for the protection of those who are genuine refugees. We also stand for the protection of taxpayers. Taxpayers are ultimately going to pay the extra costs that are being borne by the system when bogus refugee claims are in that system.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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10:15 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, the executive committee of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has warned that “in view of the hardship which it involves, detention should normally be avoided”. Canada is a signatory to the convention through which the High Commissioner for Refugees functions. Yet the bill, as a matter of normal course, will involve the detention of anyone who arrives by what the minister deems to be irregular entry. This appears punitive. Yet the minister says there is no attempt here to put forward punitive detention. It seems to me we are flying in the face of our international commitments.

I would ask my friend the hon. parliamentary secretary how he would square this circle? How is this not in direct violation of our international commitments to protect the rights of refugees?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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10:15 a.m.

Conservative

David Anderson Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Mr. Speaker, Canada has a great and long tradition of protecting refugees. Many of the people who have settled in this country are refugees. They were escaping from different types of totalitarian regimes, different types of persecution around the world.

To answer the member's question directly, it is my understanding that less than one half of 1% of refugees will be impacted by any of the detention clauses that are presented in the bill. It is aimed specifically at those who come here with what are called irregular arrivals. We had examples of folks showing up on a boat and we did not have any idea of who they were, or if their identification was accurate or not. There is a need to protect the Canadian public and to find out who people are and what they are here for before they are allowed to settle in our country.

I have had the opportunity to deal with some of the religious persecution issues. We need to be a country that is open to bringing in folks who are being persecuted, whose lives are in danger. There are many places in this world that imprison individuals on issues of religious faith. People are being threatened with death. Canada needs to be a place that is open to having them come to this country. We need to welcome them as we always have.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

10:15 a.m.

St. Catharines
Ontario

Conservative

Rick Dykstra Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Mr. Speaker, the parliamentary secretary has done an excellent job of outlining his position and in responding specifically to the issues.

He mentioned those he has assisted with respect to religious persecution. I would like to give him an opportunity to speak a little further about those who are genuine refugees and actually need our assistance here in Canada.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

10:15 a.m.

Conservative

David Anderson Cypress Hills—Grasslands, SK

Mr. Speaker, I want to recognize the great work that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration has done on this legislation and on so many of these issues. He is far more knowledgeable than I am on these issues.

In many areas around the world people are persecuted just for making a choice to believe. They should have the freedom to be able to make their own choices. They should be able to believe as they choose. They should be able to act that out as they choose as long as it does not invade their neighbours' space or violate other people's rights. We realize that is not the case in big parts of this world. There are regimes that have specifically targeted religious minorities. They are threatening them with persecution and death. We need to be open to bringing those people in.

I just need to quickly point out that Canada's top source of refugee claims last year was Hungary. When most of our refugee claimants are coming from the European Union, we need to do something to correct that situation and allow genuine refugees to be able to come here and settle.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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10:20 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, I rise to speak to Bill C-31 but before I get into my speaking points, I did not have an opportunity to reply to the parliamentary secretary for natural resources but I want to put on record the very clear NDP position on this.

First, I want to acknowledge the good work done by the member for Newton—North Delta and the member for Vancouver Kingsway. The member for Newton—North Delta indicated that witness after witness at the committee meetings studying Bill C-31 told us that the legislation was fundamentally flawed, unconstitutional and that it concentrated too much power in the hands of the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.

Bill C-31 would effectively punish legitimate refugees and do nothing to stop human smuggling because none of the NDP substantive amendments were adopted by the government members at committee and because MPs from all parties just passed the balanced refugee reform package in the last Parliament. The member for Newton—North Delta recommended that all clauses be deleted from this legislation. I think that is a fairly clear position from the NDP.

I also must correct the record around the member for Vancouver Kingsway. I know all members of the House at various times selectively quote from speeches and press releases, but I want to indicate that the member for Vancouver Kingsway actually said that Bill C-31 was a bill that was “...unconstitutional, violates international conventions, punishes refugees and harms Canada's long reputation as a responsible recipient of those needing protection”. That is from the website of the Canadian Council for Refugees. I think that is fairly unequivocal about the NDP position on Bill C-31.

As responsible parliamentarians, the New Democrats studied the bill very carefully. I would remind people that it is another omnibus bill, which seems to be a pattern that we are seeing from the Conservatives.They are not allowing parliamentarians to divide bills up and have thorough and considered study of each section of the bill to ensure we are not having unintended consequences and that the impact is exactly what the bill was intended to do. We have seen other examples in the House where we have had to go back and correct after the fact when we have made errors in bills that have been passed.

Bill C-31 would repeal most of the compromises from the former Bill C-11, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, which was from the 40th Parliament. It received all party support. Again, members from the New Democrats worked very hard with other parties to ensure that it was a more balanced approach. Bill C-31 re-introduces Bill C-4, human smuggling, which targets refugees instead of the smugglers, and it introduces the collection of biometrics for temporary residents.

I do not have enough time in 10 minutes to go through all aspects of the bill but I will touch on a couple of points. The bill would concentrate more powers in the hands of the minister by allowing him or her to name safe countries and to restrict refugees from these countries. Under the former Bill C-11, this was to be done by a panel of experts, including human rights experts. It would restrict access to humanitarian and compassionate consideration. It includes a clause that would prohibit refugee claimants who have been incarcerated in their home country for over 10 years and would not allow for tribunal discretion in the case of political prisoners. One that has been pointed out in this context is Nelson Mandela who was convicted and sentenced for sabotage in the apartheid era of South Africa. Although the New Democrats agree that Canada should not accept those with a criminal background, many refugees are actually fleeing political persecution and some consideration must be given to those refugees.

The bill would allow arbitrary designation of irregular arrivals and their mandatory incarceration.

Bill C-31 re-introduces most of the provisions of Bill C-4, which were widely condemned by refugee advocates and are likely unconstitutional. It would change the Balanced Refugee Reform Act 2010 without even implementing the law as it is. That act was passed by the minority Parliament after a series of compromises led by the NDP and was set to come into effect in June 2012.

I want to emphasize a couple of key points. The bill would punish refugees and would not address the problem of human smuggling. We just passed the Balanced Refugee Reform Act last year and the Conservatives are going back on that compromise that they spoke in favour of mere months ago. The minister wants to concentrate more arbitrary power in the minister's hands to treat refugees differently depending on how they come to Canada.

There were some amendments that were considered. This was not only through the NDP but also by refugees and stakeholder groups. A couple of these amendments were to allow for initial detention review at 14 days initially and subsequently at six months, and to clarify that the government would not have the power to revoke the permanent residency of successful refugee claimants if conditions should change in their countries of origin unless it was found that they obtained their status through fraudulent means.

However, it is important to note that these amendments did not deal with a number of very serious situations: provisions that would give the minister the power to hand-pick which countries he or she thinks are safe without the advice from any independent experts; measures to deny some refugees access to the new refugee appeal division based on how they arrived; and a five-year mandatory wait for bona fide refugees to become permanent residents and reunite with their families, again based on how they arrive in the country.

A number of other serious concerns were highlighted as potentially unconstitutional or potentially in violation of our international obligations.

We are specifically talking about refugees but many of our constituency offices end up dealing with significant amounts of casework as a result of immigration, whether it be visitors visas, refugee claims or a number of other factors like that. I am dealing with two cases in my riding. One case concerns a family member who is now in Canada. The person is professional, hard-working and has been in the country for a number of years. Her sister has been applying to come to Canada as a resident. She has been on the list for seven years and she is a skilled, professional worker. We have no idea what is going to happen to her application. Despite the number of years she has been on the list, the amount of money she has paid and that she has done everything that she needed to do, she will not be able to come to Canada even though she is one of those skilled workers we are looking for. This family, which has been waiting patiently for seven years, has been thrown into turmoil.

The second case I am dealing with concerns a visitors visa. The person was born and raised in Canada and he married somebody from another country. This woman has adult children in the other country who are professionals and who have extended families and property. They just want to come here to visit mom and dad. These family members have been repeatedly denied visitors visas because they are deemed to be a threat or risk to not return, despite their very clear ties to their home country. What will happen in this case is that this Canadian family, with significant assets in this country, will sell its assets and move to the country where the woman's family lives. What we will have here is the loss of a professional and his wife who live in the country and the loss of their significant assets because the other country will welcome them with open arms. We need to look seriously at some of this processing.

In its comments on the amendments, the Canadian Council for Refugees stated:

While the CCR welcomes changes that improve protection for refugees in Canada, the majority of the CCR’s key concerns with the bill remain, including:

Provisions to designate ‘irregular arrivals’ and ’safe countries’ (also referred to as ‘designated countries of origin’) that discriminate simply because of a person’s origin or method of arrival

Speedy and inflexible timelines that prevent people from telling their stories and preparing their cases properly

A five-year ban on permanent residence applications and family reunification for “irregular arrivals” once they are recognized as refugees

Mandatory detention for some claimants

The Canadian Council for Refugees concludes:

Unfortunately, other amendments represent a step backwards with respect to restrictions for claimants from ‘safe countries’ applying for a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA). In its original form, Bill C-31 put in place a 12-month bar; the amended version of the bill will increase this to 36 months. This change renders the PRRA ineffective.

We have an organization that works hard on behalf of refugees and it cannot support this bill. Surely the opinion of somebody who has the face-to-face knowledge from working for years with refugees should be considered.

I will close with a comment by Dr. Meb Rashid who said that as a physician who has had the privilege of working with refugee populations for over 10 years, he was deeply concerned about the impact of mandatory detention on the health status of an often overly traumatized population.

I urge all members of this House to oppose the bill.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
Government Orders

10:30 a.m.

Calgary Southeast
Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney Minister of Citizenship

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for participating in the debate on this important bill. I would, however, remind her that this is not an omnibus bill. These are all amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the vast majority of which deal with essentially the same scope of issues. They all deal with the integrity of our system.

The member is the first person I have heard suggest that this is an omnibus bill. Moreover, I would suggest that this bill has received very fulsome consideration. In fact, we have had more than 13 days of debate, almost 50 hours of debate and now over 130 speeches. At committee, we had 15 committee meetings with over 43 hours listening to 109 witnesses. Much of this bill was already considered in an earlier Parliament, with respect to the human smuggling provisions and the refugee reform provisions. Therefore, I would challenge that assertion.

I would, however, ask the member what I have asked every opposition MP. What does she propose as an effective legal disincentive for human smugglers who would target Canada and further would-be clients? Does the member have any constructive ideas about how we could dissuade such people from coming to Canada in such a dangerous and illegal fashion?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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10:30 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, the minister is correct in that it is not an omnibus and that is not changing a number of different acts. I was referring to it more in terms of the very broad scope and the impact that it would have on immigrants to this country, refugees and their families. The minister is correct in that respect.

I think there are a number of organizations that we can work with in this country in terms of targeting smugglers and working with the international community. We do take our responsibility seriously. I also agree that Canadians do not want to see human trafficking and human smuggling take place. However, we would also argue that we do not target the refugee but actually target the smugglers.

We need to respect our international conventions and work with international organizations because the problem is that it is often not made in Canada, it comes from another country.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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10:30 a.m.

Green

Elizabeth May Saanich—Gulf Islands, BC

Mr. Speaker, I do think we recognize, as the hon. minister pointed out, that this is specific legislation dealing with a specific area of immigration policy, and that there have been changes accepted.

Those changes are improvements but I am still not able to support the bill as it now stands because I believe we cannot treat a class of refugees, simply because they arrive by boat, differently from how we would treat anyone else. We could legitimately have an entire boatload of people escaping religious persecution. It would not matter the reason they had arrived on our shores, they would go to detention.

That is my understanding of the bill. I would ask my hon. friend if she thinks I have misunderstood the government's intent?

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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10:30 a.m.

NDP

Jean Crowder Nanaimo—Cowichan, BC

Mr. Speaker, actually, Amnesty International has raised this as an issue about looking at how a group of refugees comes. It cites article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which reads:

Everyone has the right to liberty and security of person. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention.

The same article stipulates that anyone who is deprived of his or her liberty by arrest or detention shall be entitled to take proceedings before a court and so on.

Other organizations are also raising concerns about how we are targeting refugees, on how they arrive in Canada and on how we are treating them differently.

Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act
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10:30 a.m.

NDP

Jinny Sims Newton—North Delta, BC

Mr. Speaker, the NDP has been very clear since we started debate on this motion that we are absolutely in support of targeting the smugglers and that we should be working with the international community to ensure that they get the punishment they deserve and all the disincentives.

However, we are not in favour of punishing the victims, which is what this bill would do.

Could my colleague tells us exactly what will happen to children who are under 16 when they arrive on one of these boats?