Thank you, Chairman. I will try to stick to my 10 minutes this time.
Canada has a long and impressive record of providing protection to refugees. In per capita terms we're among the world leaders with respect to how many refugees we resettle from overseas, as well as the number and percentage of asylum seekers to whom we grant refugee status and the range of benefits we provide.
While there's strong public support for accepting reasonable numbers of genuine refugees, many Canadians also believe there are serious problems with the current system and that Canadian generosity is being widely abused.
I think it's important to recognize that when Canada signed on to the United Nations refugee convention, we had no expectation of becoming a country of first asylum for any significant number of refugee claimants.
After War World II, we resettled more than 180,000 displaced persons from Europe, and subsequently thousands who fled from Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Asians from Uganda in the early 1970s, and Indochinese boat people later in the decade, including, by the way, some of my wife's family.
Canada did not expect to be a country of first asylum largely because of our geographical location. To get here, the vast majority of refugee claimants have to travel through countries where, under generally accepted international rules, they could and, indeed, should have sought asylum if their real purpose was to reach a safe country.
I might mention in this regard that my own concerns over the shortcomings of our refugee system started in 1986, with the arrival off the coast of Newfoundland of a boatload of 150 people who said they had fled from Sri Lanka. It was later revealed that they had been living in Germany for several years where some of them already had been granted refugee status. They had decided to move on to Canada in the expectation of receiving more generous benefits here.
We had a chance to bring this sort of situation under control a few years later, when legislation to create the Immigration Refugee Board was drafted. It was our intention to establish a list of safe third countries, that is, safe countries where asylum seekers should have made their refugee claims before moving on to Canada to look for more generous benefits, which is a practice known as asylum shopping.
The establishment of a safe third country list would have prevented us from being deluged with claimants who were not entitled to make claims in Canada because they had opportunities to make them in the safe countries they'd passed through to get here. Unfortunately, an influential and persistent refugee lobby was able to convince the then minister of immigration that no country in the world was safe except Canada. As a result, our refugee determination system, which was designed to accommodate a fairly limited number of claims, has been largely overwhelmed since then. This has not only slowed down the processing of claims by applicants who genuinely deserve our protection but has also cost an immense amount of money.
John Manion, a former deputy minister of immigration and secretary of the Treasury Board, who was before a Senate committee in 2001, estimated that the cost of the refugee system in Canada amounts to billions of dollars a year. The costs associated with an individual claimant is estimated to be in the range of $50,000. In comparison, our annual contribution to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees amounts to only about two to three dollars a year for each refugee and internally displaced person the UN cares for in its camps around the world.
The reason we spend so much more money on the processing of asylum seekers in Canada than on refugees in UN camps is that over the years a highly organized lobby of refugee lawyers and advocacy groups has been very effective in influencing successive governments with regard to refugee policy. We can expect these groups to make an all-out effort to block the passage of this legislation, because if it becomes law it could have serious implications for the income of many of them. The committee will no doubt be presented with a wide range of sometimes very detailed arguments from refugee lawyers and advocacy groups as to why the various parts of the legislation are not fair or do not meet our international obligations.
I believe that the provisions in Bill C-31 will in fact make the system much fairer than in the past, by substantially reducing the time required to approve claims that have merit. The system won't be clogged up with people who have manifestly unfounded claims.
The system won't be perfect; it's quite possible there will be some genuine cases that fall between the cracks. But bear in mind in this regard that Canada is by no means the only country in the world where people seeking asylum can apply. They have many other options if Canada does not accept their claim.
As for our international obligations, I believe these will be met under Bill C-31. But I'd also point out in this regard that the UN convention on refugees was drafted 60 years ago and updated with its protocol in 1967. Many of the features that characterize the movement of asylum seekers today—large-scale people-smuggling by criminal organizations, passage through safe countries by asylum shoppers looking for greener pastures, and claims made by nationals from safe countries such as the United States and Britain—and many of the challenges were not envisaged by the drafters of the convention and the protocol.
While I believe the legislation does indeed meet our obligations under the convention, I think the latter needs updating and revision to bring it into line with conditions that exist in the world today.
More than one political leader and refugee-receiving state has suggested that their country withdraw from the convention in its present form. I'll just mention one comment. Tony Blair, the former British Labour PM, said in his 2009 memoirs that the convention was written in response to the horrors of World War II and helped create a system that is completely unrealistic in today's world, utterly incapable of dealing with the massive numbers of asylum claims now being made. And I can quote other leaders who have said other things.
If you receive lectures by those opposing Bill C-31 to the effect that it fails to meet our international obligations, I'd point out that it probably does meet our obligations. But second, in any event, it's questionable whether we should feel bound by a convention that's very much out of date in some respects.
With regard, Chairman, to the specific provisions of Bill C-31, I'd say they are well thought out. They address many of the problems that affect the current system. It makes sense, for example, to put in place an effective procedure for designating safe countries of origin and expediting the processing of nationals of such countries. It makes no sense to allow our system to be clogged up year after year with hundreds of American asylum seekers, along with some smaller numbers from such countries as Britain, Australia, France, or even Germany, etc. Virtually nobody else in the world gives serious consideration to nationals of countries that clearly do not persecute their citizens.
If I have any criticism of the bill, it's that it does not go far enough in some regards. In addition to designating safe countries of origin, for example, we should also establish a list of safe third countries. Until now we've only identified the United States as a safe third country, and there's no reason why others, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, should not be given similar designations.
In the time I've been allotted, I won't attempt to comment on each of the major changes proposed in the legislation, but I regard all of them as essentially sound. I would point out that while we at the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform support these changes, this doesn't mean that we agree with the government on all policy areas of concern to us. In fact, we disagree quite strongly with the government on a number of key issues in the area of immigration policy.
As a general comment, I also wish to say that Canada should return as much as possible to its original intent of being a country of resettlement rather than first asylum. We resettle well over 10,000 refugees every year from overseas, most of whom have been screened by the United Nations and are determined to be genuine convention refugees. Most of the asylum seekers who come here to make claims could have applied abroad, but if they don't have a good case for such a claim, they know they are much better off coming here first, since it's common knowledge that they are likely to be able to stay here for years and receive generous public assistance even if their claims are found to be without merit.
In conclusion, Mr. Chair, I would point out that while critics of Bill C-31 will argue that its passage would be a step backwards by Canada as a compassionate and welcoming country, I do not believe this to be the case at all. We'll still be one of the most generous countries, if not the most generous country, in the world in welcoming refugees. I think we will have made major strides in reassuring Canadians that we can create an effective, fair, and efficient system that is not open to widespread abuse.