Thank you, Chairman.
I'm quite excited to be here, to be working with all of my colleagues on what is a critically important piece of legislation that constitutes part of a broader package to bring balanced reform back to Canada's asylum system.
These balanced reforms will result in bona fide refugees getting faster protection in Canada, much faster than is currently the case, while those who seek to abuse our country's generosity would also, on the other side, be removed much more quickly. These reforms would also enhance the fairness of our system and would ensure that the asylum system actually exceeds our domestic and international legal obligations.
Chairman, as part of the package, we are also proposing to expand our refugee resettlement programs and increase the number of UN refugees and others, who are often living in camps or urban slums and are victims of conflict and ethnic cleansing...we would increase our welcome to those kinds of individuals by some 20%, or 2,500 individuals. We would also increase support for the refugee assistance program for the successful integration of government-assisted refugees by some 20%, the first time that program has been increased in a decade.
In essence, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act focuses on improving our asylum system. The act would introduce a new information gathering interview at the independent Immigration and Refugee Board, would provide for a hearing within 60 days, as compared to the current 19 months, and would also introduce a new refugee appeal division, something refugee advocates have been requesting for a long time.
I would be remiss at this point not to point out the extraordinary and admirable efforts made by our colleague Mr. St-Cyr. I know he was disappointed about the failure of his bill. However, there is finally an appeal section, which is even better than what was provided by the legislation in 2002.
This new appeal division would provide most claimants with a second chance, an opportunity to introduce new evidence about their claim and to do so in an oral hearing, if necessary. And, significantly, Mr. Chairman, the bill would make it possible to remove those who would abuse our system within a year of their final IRB decision.
Bill C-11 would also put in place authority to develop a list of safe countries of origin. Because I recognize that there has been general concern over this issue, I wish to focus my remarks today on the issue of safe countries of origin.
While I referred last week in the House to our current number one country for asylum claims, and the 97% of claimants who withdrew or abandoned their claims, there have been similar spikes in claims from other countries over the past 25 years. I am referring here to Portugal, Chile, Costa Rica, Hungary in 2002, Czechoslovakia in 1997. Each time, the government, be it Conservative or Liberal, imposed visas following spikes in asylum requests from democratic countries, which were almost all denied by the IRB.
A safe country of origin would be a country that is a principal source of refugee claims, the overwhelming majority of which are unfounded. These two criteria would be the starting point for even considering whether to review a country for possible inclusion on the list. There's nothing arbitrary about the process we propose. Countries on the list would be chosen in a way that is fair, objective, transparent, and reported to Parliament. They would be placed on the list only after a thorough assessment based on objective criteria.
Such countries would have a human rights record whereby individuals would be offered protection against persecution, as the convention says, for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and whereby persons would not face the risk of torture or death. This assessment would draw on publicly available reporting and analysis from a wide range of independent sources, including NGOs on human rights.
An advisory panel, including representatives from several government departments, would be established to provide advice on designations and advice to the minister. Input and advice would also be sought from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The panel would also provide submissions recommending removal of a country at any time.
The list of countries would be short, with probably no more than a handful of countries on it at any given time. If you look at the current statistics, only a handful of countries that have a significant number of claims, the overwhelming majority of which are unfounded, would even be considered. The independent panel would then apply the qualitative assessment with respect to human rights practices and the protection of individuals. This is very important, because there are some misconceptions about this. All eligible refugee claimants, including those from designated safe countries, would continue to receive a full oral hearing before an independent decision-maker at the IRB, as they do under the current system, and would continue to have access to the Federal Court. We would continue to exceed our charter and international legal obligations with respect to claimants coming from designated safe countries.
While claimants from such countries of origin would still be able to seek judicial review, as I've said, they would of course not have access to the new RAD. This is because, Mr. Chairman, for the handful of typically democratic and rights-respecting countries from which we receive huge waves of unfounded claims, claims that are not happening spontaneously but are very often organized, we need some type of tool to accelerate the process, as most of the western European asylum systems have, short of having to resort to the blunt instrument of visa imposition, which successive governments of different parties have had to do. As I mentioned, most western European asylum systems have for consideration a country designation process to accelerate claims from safe countries. Mr. Guterres, the UN High Commissioner, said here in Ottawa that, “There are indeed safe countries of origin. There are indeed countries in which there is a presumption that refugee claims will probably not be as strong as in other countries.”
I should mention, parenthetically, that for several years he was Prime Minister of Portugal, where they have a very strong SCO system.
Mr. Chairman, I recognize that my parliamentary colleagues have also expressed concern about this aspect of my proposals, and that is why I am here today. I want to hear from members of the standing committee on this issue. I am extending a hand of openness toward my colleagues to modify the bill to address concerns. I am prepared to discuss the matter in good faith and transparency.
Colleagues, the safe country of origin is a critical tool to manage a spike in claims from countries that observe international human rights norms and obligations and that protect their citizens. The option is not to have a SCO process in the reformed asylum system or nothing at all; the option is to have that as a tool to deal with these waves of unfounded claims or to have access to one tool only, which is the imposition of a visa. I think it's important to keep that in mind.
I'm pleased to see how well these reforms have been received.
The Globe and Mail editorialized, and I quote:
Canada has a crying need for a revamped refugee-determination system, and it is to the credit of the...government that in a minority Parliament it has crafted a bold set of proposals that are fair and respect due process, while also seeking to deter those who would play this country for fools.
The Toronto Star endorsed these reforms, saying that this government “...deserves credit for showing the political will to act on an issue ducked” in the past.
The Montreal Gazette wrote that “Bill C-11...is a solid and sensible attempt...to kick-start a system that is wallowing in disarray” and that it “is a reform whose time has come”.
Experts like Peter Showler, former chair of the IRB and head of the refugee policy forum at the U of O, said, “It is even more difficult to design an entire refugee claim that is both fast and fair. The...government has done just that....”
But most importantly, Canadians support these measures by an overwhelming majority. By four to one, Canadians say that “...more needs to be done to quickly remove from Canada people whose refugee claims are unfounded and rejected”. Eighty-four percent of Canadians say that measures should be taken to reform the refugee system. And “81 per cent agreed that 'all refugee claims should be dealt with more quickly so that genuine refugees can settle in Canada faster and bogus claimants be sent home more quickly'”. This is according to a Decima Research poll.
Mr. Chairman, I want to close by emphasizing this.
I must say the amendments I am putting forward would help us maintain Canada's noble humanitarian tradition as it will allow for the protection of those that are persecuted while expediting the removal of individuals who do not need Canada's protection.
In closing, Mr. Chairman, I need to emphasize that should this bill not succeed in getting parliamentary consensus and being adopted, we will miss, frankly, an historic opportunity. I think everyone involved in this system, all of its observers, has recognized for a long time that there were some serious dysfunctionalities within our asylum system. It's not working well enough for bona fide victims of persecution. It's working too well, one could say, for those who come here who don't need our protection and who are able to stay for several years. It's not working for taxpayers.
It needs to be reformed, and if we want to get a refugee appeal division in place, if we want to be able to allocate more resources to resettle more of those who are in dire straits around the world, through our 20% increase in resettlement under the assistance program, if we want faster protection for bona fide refugees, if we want a tool that can help us to consider avoiding the imposition of visas in the future that are injurious to our diplomatic and commercial relations, if we want all of these things, Mr. Chairman, then I submit that this is a sound and balanced package that can be supported by all of those who believe in Canada's humanitarian tradition as a place of refuge.
I am happy to take your questions.