Madam Speaker, I am pleased to be here to speak to Bill C-11, which provides for equitable reforms with respect to refugees. It is about time we looked at this because the process for dealing with refugee claims submitted by people who show up at our border crossings has been a big problem for a long time now. These people come to Canada claiming to have been persecuted in their home countries. Because they get no protection there, they come here to ask Canada for protection.
The number of claims awaiting processing has skyrocketed over the past few years. Processing delays are far too long for all cases, particularly those based on the Geneva convention, which defines a refugee claimant. People who submit claims live in limbo for years, but they deserve a faster response.
This also happens to other persecuted individuals in extremely difficult circumstances around the world. These people submit their refugee claims in good faith because in many cases, they believe the legal definition applies to them, but their cases are dismissed after they have spent several years in Canada. They may have jobs, friends, families, houses. The wait times are also far too long for some unscrupulous opportunists who take advantage of the situation to try to stay in Canada as long as possible or even permanently.
This problem is due in large part to negligence on the part of the current and former governments, which hired too few members. This has been the norm at the Immigration and Refugee Board for a long time now. When there are not enough board members to process claims, when staffing levels are only two-thirds what they should be, fewer claims are processed and wait times go up.
I have a very hard time understanding this situation. Why did the government not take action sooner? Why did it not take steps to shorten wait times?
The committee often studies what is going on in immigration. I have become deeply convinced that, unfortunately, wait times are being used as a tool to manage the arrival of immigrants or, in this case, refugees. Allow me to explain.
Normally, in the health care system, wait times are due to an insufficient allocation of resources, which is involuntary because resources are scarce. Because more people need services than there are resources allocated, wait times increase over time. That is why only a certain number of people can be treated every year.
Where immigration is concerned, it is somewhat the reverse situation. Insufficient resources are voluntarily allocated to processing claims so as to not exceed the quotas and objectives that have been set. This is never acknowledged officially or publicly, but almost everyone agrees that only a certain number of people can be admitted to Canada every year.
Society has the ability to absorb a number of people from all over the world. Means are therefore sought to try and control the influx. For many years, it suited governments to have prolonged processing times. It helped slow down the influx of refugees, who figured it would be complicated to get into Canada and that it would take a few years. This acted as a disincentive.
It became a problem when the government lost control and found itself with long wait periods and a process so complicated that it almost acts as an incentive for people to come to Canada. They figure that their claims will take years to process and, during that time, they will be in a safe country and will not have to fear for their safety.
So previous governments and the current government are to blame for part of the problem, but at least we have a bill before us that is aimed at tackling the problem.
I recognize that there is a problem and that it is good to have a bill to deal with that problem. I believe that this bill contains some interesting principles. The Bloc Québécois will support it at second reading to send it to committee.
We asked that this bill be sent to committee even before second reading so that we would have complete latitude to study it and suggest constructive improvements. But the government did not opt to go that route. I hope that if we work together in committee to make the bill better, we will not get bogged down in “proceduritis”.
Let us look at the main elements of the bill. No one will be surprised that I am going to start with the refugee appeal division. This bill finally provides for implementing this division, even though it has been in the act for quite some time. In fact, the 2001 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provided for an appeal division. At the time, two board members considered a refugee claim at the same time, and all it took was for one member to approve the claim for the claimant to be accepted. In 2001, the previous Liberal government told Parliament that it would reduce the number of board members from two to one, but that it would create a refugee appeal division to make up for the change and avoid arbitrary decisions. This Parliament voted for that. But the Liberal government unfortunately never implemented its own act and the refugee appeal division, and the Conservatives have not done so either.
That is why the Bloc Québécois has repeatedly tried to force the government to implement the division, the last time being when it introduced Bill C-291, which was passed at second reading but unfortunately defeated by a single vote at third reading because of a rather pathetic Liberal tactic.
I do not agree with the Conservatives' positions, but at least they were honest about the fact that they were opposed to the refugee appeal division and would vote against it. The NDP and the Bloc said they were in favour of the refugee appeal division and said they would vote to support it. The Liberals, on the other hand, said they supported it, but curiously, during the vote, 12 members were absent, that is, double the number of absent members of all the other parties combined.
The vote before and the vote after the vote in question were won by the three opposition parties by three votes, but when the time came to vote on Bill C-291, four Liberal members mysteriously remained seated and coincidentally, the bill was defeated by a single vote. That is a lot of coincidences at once. As we all know, that was the Liberals' strategy to try to appease their electoral base while still defeating the bill in the House.
I do not mean to dwell on the past, but I thought it was important to remind the House of what happened.
Let us now look forward. Why is the refugee appeal division necessary? Contrary to what is indicated in the bill before us, why should it apply to everyone?
All of our legal systems include the opportunity to appeal. The reason is very simple: because justice is administered by humans and humans can make mistakes, the system recognizes that the justice system can make mistakes.
Opportunities for appeal will therefore be included everywhere to correct potential errors.
The bill also proposes appeal mechanisms in our legal systems to ensure uniformity. The goal is to ensure a reasonable expectation that a certain type of case, say x, will produce a certain outcome and that every case like case x will produce that same outcome. That is not how it works at the moment.
Here is an example of how similar claims were treated differently by IRB members. This happened to twins, brothers from the same country. Their claims were reviewed by two different board members, and each one made a completely different decision. The cases were alike, they were brothers who had been through the same thing together, yet the board members did not make the same decision. Clearly, there is a lack of coherence. An appeal division would have made it possible to determine which board member was wrong or mistaken.
Appeal mechanisms seek to eliminate arbitrary treatment by giving our legal systems oversight over lower-level rulings. Some board members have rejected as many as 98% of the claims they have dealt with, while others have allowed nearly every claim that has gone before them.
If I were in court one day and someone told me before the hearing that the judge convicted in 98% of his or her cases, I would know that justice was not being served and that it was a farce. I would know the dice were loaded. But in a typical legal system with an appeal division, if every decision made by a board member or judge was overturned on appeal, the chief justice would eventually tell the judge that his or her rulings were a problem.
The same applies to the IRB. An appeal process ensures that those making the decisions in the first place really think them through. Decision makers have to remember that their decisions can be appealed. They have to really think about their decisions and consider whether they are likely to be upheld or systematically appealed.
That is not in the legislation. I know that there have been some intense discussions with the minister about the current potential for appeals in the legislation. There is none. I have been saying it all along, and I will say it again today. There are ways of getting around it, such as the judicial review process at the Federal Court. Very few applications are accepted. In all cases, only the procedural aspect of the application is examined. No one can request a judicial review on the basis of the facts. For example, if a member says that he does not believe a person's story and does not think he is credible, the Federal Court would never say that his story was credible and approve his application.
There is the issue of pre-removal risk assessments. This procedure is very rarely applied. In fact, only 2% of the applications involving new facts since the initial hearing are accepted. It is not truly an appeal mechanism. Neither is a permanent resident application on humanitarian grounds. Some people use it as a second attempt if they think there was an error with their case at the initial hearing. It does not fall under the definition of refugee status as adopted by the conventions supported by Canada.
I have spent a lot of time talking about the appeal division. I think that natural justice is something really fundamental, and we cannot ignore it. The problem with the bill before us is the exemption for so-called safe countries. The minister said that he would create a list, but we have no details about that yet, and people who come from these so-called safe countries will not have access to the refugee appeal division.
Finally, the bill takes a positive step by implementing the refugee appeal division and—let us be frank—by improving it in certain ways, for instance, with the possibility of presenting new evidence and testifying again. Nevertheless, a certain proportion of asylum seekers will not have this opportunity. In my opinion, that is a mistake. When it comes to equality of the most basic rights, we must not treat people differently based on their country of origin. That seems obvious to me.
When a person appears before a tribunal that will make a decision far less significant than one where the person could potentially be sent back to be tortured, killed or persecuted, the tribunal does not take the person's country of origin into account. When neighbours are in a dispute over a fence, neither party would ever be denied the right to appeal based on their country of origin. Everyone is treated equally, regardless of where they are from.
I do not see why this distinction would be made in the case of refugees. It is not necessary. The bill already provides for an expedited process, namely by suspending for one year the possibility of applying for a pre-removal risk assessment, a temporary resident permit or permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. These options that were once available to refugees no longer appear in the legislation. We do not think it is necessary to go so far as to prevent people from safe countries from using the appeal division.
I will now say a few words on the issue of deadlines, which are of particular concern to me. Deadlines do not figure in the bill, but I imagine they will be included in the regulations. It seems that the minister intends to give refugees eight days from the time refugee status is claimed to the time they meet with an IRB officer for help with the application. As I was saying earlier, although generally speaking it is a good idea to expedite the process, in some cases this can be problematic.
When a refugee from another country who has been persecuted and perhaps raped several times arrives in Canada, they are told that they have one week to tell their whole story. Many psychologists would say that you can work with a rape victim, for example, for months before they start talking about their experience. Perhaps we should include mechanisms to correct this. In addition, the interview will be used later, during the hearing and possibly the appeal, to discredit the person. They will be asked why they did not report certain things during the initial interview. We must ensure that the person's psychological state during the interview makes it possible to truly tell their story.
I also have concerns about the timeframe for the hearing, which is 60 days. It is a good thing if applicants who are ready do not have a long wait for their hearing. In some cases, however, it may be extremely difficult to obtain the evidence and documents that might be very far away. In some parts of the world, it can take two weeks for a document to arrive and another two weeks to send it back. That adds up to a month, leaving only 30 days for the lawyer to prepare the case.
Finally, I am very worried by the fact that, by and large, these reforms will be made by regulation, thus sidestepping Parliament. In addition, there is the matter of the timeframes I spoke about, the designation of safe countries, the assisted voluntary returns program that I did not have time to talk about, and so forth.
Yesterday's news reported on the case of a sick, pregnant woman, locked in prison and waiting to be deported. The government sometimes lacks compassion. Therefore, we are very reluctant to give it carte blanche. For that reason, we are asking the minister to submit the regulations in full before proceeding with a clause-by-clause analysis in committee. Thus, when we vote on the bill, we will at least be familiar with the proposed regulations.
I will be pleased to answer my colleagues' questions.