Thank you, Mr. Chair.
It's a pleasure to meet with you today to discuss Canada's refugee system. I would like to thank the committee for the priority it's giving to refugee issues. Your examination of the issues is most appreciated by the department.
If I may, I will use the time allowed for an opening statement to provide a brief overview of the system and address some of the issues that have been raised by witnesses, after which my colleagues and I would be pleased to take any questions from the committee. I am also tabling fact sheets that address some of these same issues.
I should state at the outset that Canada's refugee system is more than just Citizenship and Immigration Canada. It involves a wide range of activities managed by a host of partners--from the government's diplomatic efforts that can prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place, and the reconstruction of failed states, including peacekeeping and development assistance; to the identification and speedy processing of those in need of protection; to the public, private, and voluntary services that help resettled refugees and asylum seekers integrate into Canadian society.
At CIC we manage two distinct streams of refugees--the domestic asylum system and our resettlement-from-abroad program. The first includes individuals in Canada known as refugee claimants. Refugee claimants who are determined to be in need of Canada's protection are known as protected persons and may apply for permanent residency from within Canada. In 2005 a total of 25,376 protected persons and their dependants obtained permanent residence, accounting for about 71% of all refugees landed last year.
The second refugee program comprises government-assisted refugees and privately sponsored refugees accepted for resettlement in Canada. Canada has one of the largest refugee resettlement programs in the world. Last year we accepted more than 10,000 refugees for resettlement. Resettlement is only one durable solution, though, and can only ever be the answer for a small portion of the world's refugees.
You have heard from others about how the global number of refugees has declined, reaching last year its lowest level in 30 years. This is true. But while refugee numbers are declining globally, the length of time someone is in a refugee-like situation is increasing. Of the 8.2 million refugees in the world, over 6 million have been in a refugee situation for over five years, and in many cases the situation has existed for decades. So the focus of our resettlement program is to try to use it as part of a comprehensive approach to managing down protracted refugee situations.
In addition to our own resettlement program, we are working internationally to build the capacity of other nations. For example, Minister Solberg announced recently that Canada would contribute $1 million towards the implementation of the Mexico plan of action to assist countries in the region to develop their own resettlement capacity in Latin America.
It must be said that offering protection to those in genuine need while maintaining the integrity of the program and public confidence can be a very difficult balance. We have followed the deliberations of this committee and would like to address a number of issues that were raised by other witnesses. A number of stakeholders who work directly with refugees on a day-to-day basis, such as the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance and the Burnaby School Planning Council, raised several concerns about integration issues. This building of public awareness is both important and welcome.
Witnesses have also raised the issue related to individuals who are out of status and benefit from a temporary suspension of removals stay. And some witnesses have called for a regulatory class providing permanent residence for those who have been in Canada for three years or more. The Government of Canada is sensitive to the circumstances of foreign nationals from those countries that are currently subject to a temporary suspension of removals. Under current provisions of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, there are a number of avenues for these individuals to apply for permanent residence in Canada. In all, since the implementation of the stays, more than 16,000 individuals from those countries have been granted permanent residence in Canada through one of these avenues, which represents an acceptance rate of 90%.
First, the majority of these foreign nationals have successfully made refugee claims. Second, the in-Canada spousal public policy allows out-of-status individuals married to or in a common law relationship with a citizen or a permanent resident of Canada to apply for permanent residence.
A third avenue, the humanitarian and compassionate grounds process, exists specifically to address exceptional and compelling situations on a case-by-case basis. In 2005 acceptance rates were quite high for applications in humanitarian and compassionate considerations—high in the average of 85% from foreign nationals who are subject to a temporary suspension of removals.
It is also important to note that prior to receiving permanent residence, foreign nationals benefiting from a temporary stay of removals are entitled to the same employment and social benefits from the Government of Canada as any temporary foreign worker, including NAFTA professionals. They are also entitled to attend school and entitled to health coverage under the interim federal health program.
Witnesses have also raised a number of issues related to the Canada–U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement. The agreement is not unique in the world. Several developed countries, including EU member states, have articulated a safe third country policy. The European experience illustrates similar cooperation through responsibility-sharing arrangements.
The Canada–U.S. agreement acknowledges the international legal obligations of both governments under the principle of non-refoulement outlined in the 1951 refugee convention and its 1967 protocol, as well as the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture. The two governments also recognize that the sharing of responsibility for refugee protection must include access to a full and fair refugee status determination in order to guarantee the effective protection under the refugee convention and Convention Against Torture. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has confirmed that the agreement respects international refugee law and Canada's commitments under the convention.
Some witnesses have attributed the declining number of asylum claims in Canada to the safe third country agreement. It is important to note that there has been a decline in refugee claims in industrialized countries of some 50% since 2001. The decline in Canada is consistent with this global trend. It is also worth noting that although the global number of asylum claims in industrialized countries dropped again in 2006, the number of claims in Canada so far in 2006 is up by some 20% compared to last year.
With respect to criticisms of the U.S. system expressed by some witnesses to the committee, recently released analysis of Professor David A. Martin, professor of law at the University of Virginia and internationally recognized expert on the U.S. refugee determination system, indicates that in the period from 2001 to 2005, out of over 205,000 cases adjudicated, the U.S. granted protection to 45% of the cases. This compares favourably to the Canadian acceptance rate of 43% during the same time period.
The standing committee has heard concerns from witnesses on the decision to delay implementation of the refugee appeal division, known as the RAD. The RAD would provide refugee claimants with the right to a paper-based appeal of a negative decision from the IRB. This appeal would review individual cases for errors of fact, law, and mixed fact and law. It would not allow for an appeal in person, and would not allow for the presentation of new information not submitted at the original hearing.
It should be noted that the current system allows for multiple avenues of review. Unsuccessful refugee claimants have the right to apply for judicial review in the Federal Court, which can and has overturned IRB decisions, based on patently unreasonable errors in finding of fact. In addition, those who feel they will be at risk if they return to their country of origin can apply for a pre-removal risk assessment, where new evidence can be presented. When there are compelling reasons to do so, persons wishing to remain in Canada can also make a separate application to remain in the country on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
Even without an appeal, Canada continues to meet its international and domestic obligations with respect to refugee protection. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees often refers to Canada's as one of the best systems in the world.
Moreover, CIC estimates that the implementation of RAD would have an annual cost of over $12 million to the federal government and that the implementation of RAD would add a minimum of five months to the refugee determination process. This, in turn, would increase the social assistance costs to the provinces by approximately $21 million annually.
The committee has heard from witnesses who have suggested allowing family members of protected persons in Canada to travel immediately to Canada and apply for permanent residence from within Canada. Family reunion is the cornerstone of Canada's immigration program. The department's objective is to reunite families as quickly as possible while guarding against potential abuses. Our system has safeguards to balance both interests.
The fact sheet that I've tabled provides some figures on the numbers of family members being granted permanent residence each year. Visa officers overseas make every effort to bring family members of refugees to Canada as quickly as possible. The objective—to quickly reunite families—must, however, be balanced with the government's commitment to protect Canadians' health and security. Public health concerns, particularly tuberculosis transmission, must be managed before allowing family members to travel to Canada. Additionally, family relationship concerns, largely related to trafficking in children, cannot be ignored, as trafficking is a very ugly but very real issue. Allowing persons to travel immediately to Canada before security checks are finalized could place Canadians at very real risk.
Finally, the standing committee has heard testimony related to the private sponsorship refugee program on several occasions since October. Witnesses have called for an increase in targets and an increase in resources allocated to processing these applications. The department highly values the privately sponsored refugee program, which allows Canadians and permanent residents to support resettlement efforts by assuming the responsibility of funding and integrating resettled refugees. That being said, the PSR program is currently facing several challenges, as highlighted before the standing committee.
Canadians and CIC work together to bring between 3,000 to 4,000 privately sponsored refugees to Canada each year. In response to rising demands from the sponsorship community, and in support of Canada's humanitarian efforts, the upper end of this target was raised to 4,500 for the year 2007, as announced by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in the 2006 annual report to Parliament on immigration, which was tabled on October 31. This change will give sponsors more flexibility to contribute to Canada's broader efforts to manage down protracted refugee situations.
The long processing times in the PSR program reflect the fact that the number of persons currently referred to the program far exceeds the target range in this category. That has resulted in the buildup of an inventory now reaching above 14,000 persons.
Even with additional resources, the number of resettled refugees entering the country will still be in the target range. A second challenge, however, is that unfortunately many people referred to the program are not genuine refugees under Canadian resettlement criteria. This has resulted in a refusal rate of 52% for the program in 2005, creating a significant diversion of resources that could have been dedicated to processing those in genuine need of protection. To illustrate some of the challenges faced by this program, the fact sheet that I've tabled includes the number of applications received and accepted since 2000.
In conclusion, Mr. Chair, there is no question that we face challenges. Refugee protection has always been a complex and challenging issue, and in today's world, it is even more so. I can say without hesitation that we are looking forward to the committee's report. I am certain that your deliberations will lead to recommendations founded on the best interests of refugees and of Canadians. Canada's refugee system has been recognized as one of the best in the world. With your help, we will keep our commitment to make it even better.
I thank you for giving me this time, and we look forward to your questions.