moved that Bill C-11, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Federal Courts Act, be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to commence third reading of Bill C-11, the balanced refugee reform act, which would reform Canada's asylum system to make it both faster and fairer. I encourage all hon. members to support the bill.
I am pleased to report that the proposed reforms in the original version of Bill C-11 received widespread support. However, many concerns were raised in good faith by parliamentarians and others concerned about Canada's asylum system. We have, in good faith, agreed to significant amendments that reflect their input, resulting in a stronger piece of legislation that is a monumental achievement for all involved.
These amendments, I am happy to say, create a reform package that is both faster and fairer than the bill as it was originally tabled.
There is a remarkable spirit of co-operation around this bill. It is amazing to see that a consensus could be reached on such a sensitive issue by all the parties in the House with their divergent views.
I will just add that I have been here for some 14 years and in a minority Parliament for several years. It is very seldom that we see all parties working together on anything. To have seen all parties come together, following a diligent and serious debate on this very complex matter of policy that involves people's lives, is truly remarkable. It is a commendation to all Canadians that, indeed, notwithstanding the political differences here, at least from time to time this minority Parliament can work and, in this case, it has worked. That only happened because of the diligence and good faith of those parliamentarians who worked most closely on the bill. I commend, in particular, my parliamentary secretary, the member for St. Catharines.
I would like to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of the Bloc’s immigration critic, the hon. member for Jeanne-Le Ber, who demonstrated an incredible knowledge of these reforms and this aspect of our legislation. He was open to an agreement, which was really unexpected at the start of the process.
It is rather rare for a so-called ordinary member to have an opportunity to implement an idea taken from a private member’s bill. The hon. member for Jeanne-Le Ber proposed a bill to implement the appeal division of the Immigration and Refugee Board. That was rejected by the House because it was not part of a larger reform of the asylum granting system.
Thanks to his tenacity and dedication, Bill C-11 gives all rejected asylum seekers access to a new appeal division. This is thanks to his efforts. I would like to salute him and thank him for his remarkable efforts.
I would like to acknowledge the great efforts and remarkable spiritedness and diligence of my colleague from Trinity—Spadina, who is a long-standing spokesperson for refugees, for people who are in need of our protection. She brought a great deal of compassion to this debate but also a tremendous knowledge of the complex details of refugee policy. To quote my new favourite newspaper, the Toronto Star, the fact that the member for Trinity—Spadina and I could come to an agreement on a matter as delicate as refugee reform is nothing short of a miracle. Miracles happen.
I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the member for Vaughan, the official opposition immigration critic, who first raised this issue last spring, in March 2009. He worked with us in good faith to advance the cause of a fair and fast asylum system. I regret that he ran into some internal political difficulties in his own caucus.
Not to sour the note, there was at least one member of this place, the member for Bourassa, who was not exactly representative of the kind of consensual approach that has characterized this bill. In fact, he engaged in the kind of lowbrow demagoguery that really has no place in debates on immigration, suggesting that this positive reform would “build walls around Canada”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In point of fact, the reforms that this bill will allow us to implement will lead to a 20% increase in the number of resettled UN refugees, who we will welcome to our shores, victims of ethnic cleansing, warfare or persecution. There will be some 2,500 a year, year after year, who will find the certainty of Canada's protection and to whom we will be giving protection, thanks to these reforms, thanks to the broadmindedness, the soft-heartedness but also the hard-headedness of members from all sides.
We have been able to bring about these reforms that will help to save 2,500 additional lives every year as we welcome more resettled refugees and give them more support for their successful integration. This bill does not build walls around Canada, as the member suggested in a fit of demagoguery. Rather, it breaks walls down so that Canada can be true to its vocation as a place of protection and refuge for those most in need of it.
We can all be proud of the Canadian asylum granting system, although all the parties acknowledge that it is typified by extensive backlogs and lengthy processing delays. This is not a temporary situation that arose just recently. It is typical of a broken system that has been that way for a long time.
I do not need to belabour the point. We all recognize the system in many respects is broken, with a 60,000 person backlog taking 20 months for an initial protection decision, with some nearly 60% of claims being rejected, with our number one source country, a European Union democracy, from which 97% of claimants go on to abandon or withdraw their own claims. Therefore, it is imperative that we find a way to deter abuse so that those who really need protection get that protection faster and those who seek to abuse Canada's generosity are removed from this country much more quickly.
That is what Bill C-11 would achieve. The bill and its related regulatory and operational reforms would create a new information-gathering interview at the independent Immigration and Refugee Board early in the claims process. It would put in place independent decision makers at the Refugee Protection Division of the IRB who are not political appointees. They in fact would be appointed according to a transparent process. It would create a new fact-based refugee appeal division.
This is something that refugee advocates and more especially the hon. member for Jeanne-Le Ber have been demanding for years.
It would create the certainty of Canada's protection for bona fide refugees in about four months rather than the current 19 months. It would allow for the removal of false claimants in about a year rather than several years under the status quo, which would yield about $1.8 billion in savings for Canadian taxpayers.
It would allow for the possibility to fast track the processing of claims from designated countries, as well as the identification and expedited processing of manifestly unfounded or fraudulent claims. It would create a new pilot program of assisted voluntary removals for failed claimants. It would invest $540 million in new resources for the refugee system, including the enhancements to resettlement from abroad that I mentioned.
As I mentioned at the outset, the government was open to the idea of making thoughtful improvements that would help achieve what I believe we all want: a quick, fair asylum granting system.
During second reading of Bill C-11 in the House of Commons, I listened to all the speeches. During the debates and consultations, the government took constructive criticism into account and recognized the need to work together with the opposition to design a bill that reflected the parliamentary consensus.
The reforms we are proposing should have been implemented long ago. They would have enabled us to use our resources to protect people who really need it.
Bill C-11 would put in place authority to develop a designated country of origin list. This list would include countries with a strong record of human rights and protection of their citizens and that are not normally refugee producing, probably in the end, no more than a handful of countries.
We need such a tool to deal with large spikes in unfounded claims from typically safe democratic countries, claims that are often later abandoned or withdrawn, suggesting that claimants may not have been in need of our protection in the first place. I am confident that we will seize the opportunity before us to implement these reforms.
As the IRB presently delivers the majority of risk assessment making through the Refugee Protection Division, and additionally the refugee appeal division under Bill C-11, the IRB is the logical organization in which to centralize the function of risk assessment, which we have done through an amendment to the original bill, moving the pre-removal risk assessment for failed asylum claimants to the IRB.
The government has also heard the concerns expressed by a wide range of stakeholders regarding the proposed deadlines. To respond to those concerns, we have agreed to move the deadlines back, to 15 days instead of eight for the initial interview by the information gatherer that is being incorporated in the Act, and to 90 days instead of 60 for the initial hearing, which will be incorporated in the regulations in the section dealing with processing times in the Refugee Appeal Division.
The deadlines proposed for the interview and the subsequent hearing are reasonable, realistic and fair, and for certain exceptions, in particular in cases where there is evidence of trauma or vulnerability, the officers handling the interviews would have the power to adjourn an interview.
The decision-makers at the first-level hearings will be trained in accordance with the same standards as are used in the present system and hired in accordance with the values of the public service: merit, transparency, access, representativeness and fairness.
The government has worked with our colleagues in other parties to make further changes to our policy direction with respect to the designated country approach. These changes are reflected in amendments passed by the standing committee with support from all parties. We have accepted an amendment from our colleagues in the Bloc that gives claimants from designated countries access to the refugee appeal division while ensuring even faster processing of their claims than was originally proposed in Bill C-11.
The amended designated country provisions maintain the intent of our policy to more quickly process and remove claimants from designated countries. Criteria for the purposes of designation have also been included in the legislation. These include the volume of claims from that country, the acceptance rate at the IRB for claims from that country, the human rights record of that country and the availability of avenues for seeking protection and redress in that country.
While a review would be conducted against all four criteria, the amendments ensure that the quantitative thresholds established in regulations actually trigger the review. In other words, a review for designation could only take place if certain quantitative thresholds established in regulations are met. Countries that do not meet this threshold would not be reviewed. Manifestly unfounded claims would also be a factor in country designation decisions and would be reflected in regulations.
I would like to express my thanks to the member for Jeanne-Le Ber, because he was the one who heard the experts and the other people who actually came up with idea that was seriously considered and approved by the standing committee. This is a very flexible tool for dealing with fraud when it arises in our refugee protection system.
Manifestly unfounded claims would also be a factor, as I have said. The concept of the manifestly unfounded claim is well established with the UNHCR and is focused upon cases which are clearly fraudulent in nature.
These amendments provide for greater transparency around the criteria that will have to be met to designate a country, and also clearly limit the powers of the minister.
Regulations would also require that a designation can only be made if an advisory panel including at least two independent human rights experts recommends it.
These amendments go a long way in providing greater clarity and transparency around the process of designation.
Amendments also propose to schedule a hearing for designated country claimants earlier than for other claimants, within 60 days of the initial interview, as opposed to 90 days.
The bill also proposes that the refugee appeal division would hear an appeal from a failed claimant from a designated country within 30 days following an application, as opposed to the 120 days for claimants from other countries.
With these amendments, the same policy objective would be achieved but by speeding up processing timeframes rather than denying access to the new RAD at the IRB, which was initially proposed in Bill C-11.
As well, faster processing, including prioritization of failed designated country claimants for removals, would ensure that designated country claimants could not stay in Canada for long periods of time.
The government further proposed an amendment to allow the RAD to expedite the appeal of a claim that is determined to be manifestly unfounded, that is to say, essentially fraudulent claims. This would ensure that appeals of such claims would take place in the same expedited timeframe applied to failed claimants from designated countries.
Manifestly unfounded claims would have 15 days to file an appeal at the RAD and appeals would be considered within 30 days of the filing. The processing time standard at the front end, however, would be the same as for claimants from other countries, 15 days for the information-gathering interview and 90 days for hearings following that interview.
This new provision would respond to spikes in fraudulent claims more quickly than would the designated country designation.
Also under the proposed amendments, if either designated country or manifestly unfounded claimants chose also to apply for judicial review, their removals would not be stayed and they would be subject to priority removal.
With these amendments we would still be providing fast protection decisions for those in need with quality first-level decisions by an independent quasi-judicial body. We would continue to provide for expedited processing of claims from designated countries without denying the claimants access to an appeal.
In fact, we would actually do a bit better under these proposed reforms and amendments than the bill as originally tabled. Claims from designated countries would be processed in an estimated 120 days, about half of the processing time of most claims and about 10 times faster than under the status quo.
Claims determined to be manifestly unfounded would have the same arrangement for expedited appeal as designated country claimants.
We have also agreed to other amendments which clarify the existing policy and respond to certain concerns that have been raised, including the fact that considerations associated with undue hardship would continue to be examined in applications on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
The risk assessment under sections 96 and 97 of the act would be eliminated from that process, as initially proposed, to avoid redundancies in the refugee protection system.
With the exception of the committee's decision to eliminate the one-year time limit for access to applications on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, I will be happy to say that I completely approve of the amendments approved by the committee.
With respect to the limitation on humanitarian and compassionate applications, the government continues to believe that these measures would contribute to the overall effectiveness of the system and deter abuse.
In general, however, the amendments proposed would continue to enable us to achieve our objectives of expediting processing, deterring abuse and giving claimants access to the Refugee Appeal Division.
As I said earlier, the amendments are actually an improvement from the original proposal, a real and unique win-win situation for all involved in this debate and for legitimate claimants as well as for Canadian taxpayers. That is because the fast-track process would be even faster than our original timelines.
I look forward to taking questions on the technical aspects of the bill and the associated regulations.
Let me close by thanking all parliamentarians and members of the committee who so diligently exercised their true role as legislators and for giving evidence and hope to Canadians that we can work together to achieve sound public policy.
I thank all of the hard-working officials at Citizenship and Immigration Canada who, quite frankly, have worked on this issue for years and with tremendous diligence in the past several months. I thank as well my own political staffers, particularly my policy director, Mr. James Yousif, who has done remarkable work in advising me and the government and making this day possible.