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Evidence of meeting #39 for Citizenship and Immigration in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was children.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Sharalyn Jordan  Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee
Christine Morrissey  Founder and Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee
Michael Deakin-Macey  Past President, Board of Directors, Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, As an Individual
John Amble  As an Individual
Richard Stanwick  President Elect, Canadian Paediatric Society
Glynis Williams  Executive Director, Action Réfugiés Montréal
Jenny Jeanes  Program Coordinator, Action Réfugiés Montréal
Marie Adèle Davis  Executive Director, Canadian Paediatric Society
Gina Csanyi-Robah  Executive Director, Roma Community Centre
Maureen Silcoff  Representative, Roma Community Centre

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

Ladies and gentlemen, we'll start. This is the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, meeting number 39, Thursday, May 2, 2012. As to the orders of the day, this meeting is televised pursuant to the order of reference of Monday, April 23, 2012, Bill C-31, An Act to Amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and other acts.

You will note that because we have three witnesses on this panel, this meeting will be one hour and 15 minutes.

We have Sharalyn Jordan, a member of the board of the Rainbow Refugee Committee, good afternoon, and we have Christine Morrissey, who is the founder and a member of the board. Hello, you've been here before for the backlog studies, and thank you for coming again.

We have Michael Deakin-Macey, who is the past president of the board of directors of the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, good afternoon. We put you off from this morning because we had to vote, and I thank you for coming around this afternoon.

We have from London, England, by video conference, John Amble.

You gave evidence on our security study. So thank you, sir, for coming and helping us with this particular bill.

Each group will have up to 10 minutes to make a presentation. We will start with Ms. Jordan or Ms. Morrissey or both.

3:30 p.m.

Sharalyn Jordan Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

We will be sharing our time.

3:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

Thank you.

You have up to 10 minutes.

3:30 p.m.

Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

Sharalyn Jordan

Thank you.

On behalf of all my colleagues at the Rainbow Refugee Committee, I want to thank you for giving us the opportunity to share our point of view on Bill C-31.

Rainbow Refugee supports efforts to create a fair, efficient, effective, and affordable refugee system. We share goals of upholding the integrity of refugee determination. In 2010, we were grateful for the opportunity to discuss Bill C-11 with this standing committee and we took notice when parliamentarians worked together and listened to those of us who work closely with refugees to revise what is now the Balanced Refugee Reform Act.

Rainbow Refugee is disturbed to see that Bill C-31 resurrects measures that we identified as problematic, and includes new measures that disproportionately harm lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer refugees. These concerns are based on a decade of experience focused on this work.

Canada has been a global leader in refugee protection for those facing persecution due to sexual orientation or gender identity. We were the first country to recognize that transphobia and homophobia can result in persecution; 21 countries now do the same. This protection is vital in a world where 76 countries continue to criminalize lesbian, gay, bi, and trans people.

May 3rd, 2012 / 3:30 p.m.

Christine Morrissey Founder and Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

We strongly oppose giving the minister sole discretion to create a designated country list that denies access to appeal. A safe country list cannot accommodate the current state of complexity and flux in safety and protection for LGBT people. For example, Brazil holds the largest pride parade in the world with over three million people participating. It also has the highest rate of homophobic murders reported in the world. Is Brazil safe because the murders are reported, or unsafe because they happen in the first place and police are incapable of curbing them? Would you put Brazil on a designated country list?

South Africa recognizes same sex marriage, is democratic, has an independent judiciary, and civil society organizations. Based on Bill C-31, it could be placed on the designated country list. Yet there are 10 cases a week in which lesbians have been targeted for corrective rape, and the police have done nothing to investigate. Would you give a lesbian from South Africa an expedited hearing and no access to an appeal?

3:35 p.m.

Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

Sharalyn Jordan

It is precisely when country conditions appear safe on paper that LGBT refugee decisions are most complex and the safety net of an appeal is crucial. A life or death decision should never rest in one person's hands. The safe list was proposed to deal efficiently with surges in unfounded claims, yet countries like the U.K. that have a list do not necessarily have a more efficient system.

Our brief outlines more efficient measures aligned with UNHCR guidelines. If a designated list is kept, it must not deny right of appeal, and the criteria must include meaningful safety and viable state protection for LGBT people and other vulnerable groups. For example, have constitutional protections for sexuality and gender identity been put in place at an operational level? What protection resources are available, in practice, to people who face sexual or gender identity persecution?

3:35 p.m.

Founder and Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

Christine Morrissey

We have grave concerns about the injustice and harm caused to LGBT refugees designated as irregular arrivals under Bill C-31. Agents may be the only way LGBT asylum seekers can escape persecution, given that neighbouring countries are often unequally safe. In some regions of the world there is no safe haven for LGBT asylum seekers, so overseas refugee protection is not an option.

Consider the experience of one of our members, Adil, a gay man from an east African country that criminalizes homosexuality. If he fled to Kenya, a nearby country, he would face at least an eight-year wait for resettlement, while trying to survive in a country that has a 10-year prison sentence for homosexuality, and having to hide in camps or remain destitute in a city. UNHCR officials, typically locals, are not trusted and are often not trained in sexual orientation or gender identity decisions. We are working with overseas refugees from countries that publicly execute gay men. The UNHCR accepted that they were gay, and nonetheless denied their claims for protection.

Going back to Adil, an agent agreed to take him to Europe. Instead, Adil ended up in South America, where he was forced to work as a farm labourer. Over several months his work crew was moved north. They were eventually dropped off just over the Canadian border with $20 cash each. They went their separate ways. The mode of arrival says nothing about whether someone is a genuine refugee or not.

Adil found his way to a church, and the pastor helped him start a refugee claim. However, Adil was not able to disclose the reasons why he feared persecution. It was only after several meetings with his lawyer that he felt enough trust to say that he was gay.

3:35 p.m.

Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

Sharalyn Jordan

We strenuously object to the provisions that detain without prompt and independent review, deny due process, and delay access to permanent residency. Recently we received a letter from a gay man in detention in the Lower Mainland. He was from a country that imprisons LGBT people. He was afraid to speak openly with his assigned duty counsel, and felt extremely unsafe around the other detainees. Under Bill C-31 he would have to stay closeted and vigilant in jail for 12 months. His chances for a fair hearing would be severely curtailed.

Detention punishes the 94% of refugees who are not security threats. Existing legislation provides for detention until identity and security can be identified.

3:35 p.m.

Founder and Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

Christine Morrissey

The expedited timeframe proposed under Bill C-31 will not give LGBT claimants a fair chance to obtain competent legal counsel and prepare themselves and their evidence. We are pleased that the government has heard the concerns we expressed that a screening interview at 15 days would be unfair, ineffective, and extremely costly. Returning to a written basis of claim prepared with legal counsel is a step in the right direction. However, with this responsibility returned to community groups and lawyers, it is only fair that we be given reasonable opportunity to do a decent job. Legal aid applications take time, and we work with language and cultural gaps, and extremely intimate and sensitive testimony.

How would you begin to talk with a relative stranger about being sexually assaulted by police officers at gunpoint, or having your family threaten to stone you if you don't agree to an arranged marriage? Under these circumstances, how would you collect the documents that prove your fear of persecution? Could you do so in 30 days? Could you do so if using e-mail or fax put you and your family at further risk?

We know people who have been sent back to harm because they were unable to say what they needed to say, or because documentation was impossible to obtain. We fear that the vast majority of LGBT claimants will be inadequately prepared for hearings, resulting in poor decisions and unfair rejections.

3:40 p.m.

Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

Sharalyn Jordan

We are deeply concerned about the impact of barring claimants from an H and C application both during and for 12 months after the claim.

These measures form a crucial safety net for LGBT people at risk of serious harm in their home countries. Determining when homophobia and transphobia cross the threshold and become persecution is challenging. Board members and lawyers struggle to make this call. Good information is sparse and the gap between laws on paper and on the ground conditions is large.

Marta, from Mexico, arrived at a Rainbow Refugee meeting two years ago. With time, she confided in us. As a young woman she had been rejected by family because of her sexuality. On her own since the age of 16, she dealt with harassment as a butch lesbian and a mixed race Mexican.

In 2008 she was viciously attacked by a gang of men with connections to the police. They beat and burned her, smashed her hands, and threatened to kill her. Marta and her girlfriend went into hiding, but the threats continued. Marta filed police reports and was told that she would have to pay daily for protection from the police.

The two women tried relocating and in each city, threats followed. After another close call, Marta bought a plane ticket to Vancouver. Would you advise Marta to make a refugee claim or to file an agency application?

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

Thank you.

3:40 p.m.

Founder and Member of the Board, Rainbow Refugee Committee

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

I'm sorry, we're out of time. I'd like to give you more time, but I'm not allowed to.

Mr. Deakin-Macey, you have up to 10 minutes.

3:40 p.m.

Michael Deakin-Macey Past President, Board of Directors, Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, As an Individual

Thank you very much.

Good morning to all members of the committee and all those who are witness to these proceedings.

I recently travelled to Europe with my sweetheart and visited the grave of one of her relatives who died at Passchendaele in Belgium. It's very emotional seeing the name of a relative on a tombstone, especially when so far from home. There are many others there too, and many among them are Chinese workers brought in to dig graves for the fallen. They dug well into 1919 to bury the dead.

I start with this because Canada at that time did not treat the Chinese particularly well, especially by today's standards. Yet despite this, the Chinese are buried in the same graveyard. Despite all of the things that generation did wrong by today's standards, when the time came, they did the most honourable thing possible: they all rest together.

I see myself as a quiet Canadian. By that I mean I work to take care of my family, I volunteer in my community, and run my small business with hopes of employing more people in the future. My volunteer activities have caused me to be here before you today, because I'm the past president of the board of directors of the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society in the city of Victoria, British Columbia.

It's a small organization of approximately 30 full-time staff with a budget of $2 million a year. I was a very involved president. I know business and learned the somewhat arcane business of the Canadian immigration and refugee system at the street level. It works despite itself. Our funding came from more than a dozen sources and it consumed 20% to 30% of the staff's time applying for and administering all of these programs. Simply put, it needs a bit of improving.

I've been following the debate in my current role as a quiet Canadian in a quiet city. Canada is a generous country to the point that some see us as simple and often take advantage. Simple is a country that takes care of everybody, regardless of whether or not they're Canadian.

The Canada Health Act of 1984 guarantees access to emergency health care regardless of nationality. We get many visitors who are sick and show up in Canadian emergency rooms. We treat them, no questions asked. Then we try to get compensated for what it costs us to treat them. Being generous is not inexpensive.

Which brings us to today and the question of refugees, at least that's the reason I was asked to come. The Sun Sea was brought into my home town of Victoria. The first thing that Canada did was to ensure that they were physically safe and then to get them any medical attention that they needed, as well as food, clothing, and a clean place to sleep. Yes, they were detained, but they were not denied entry. Our country took care of them.

As reported in The Toronto Star on August 21, 2010 by Petti Fong, three in five Canadians believe that the ship should have been turned back. Yet the government did the honourable thing despite public opinion at the time.

Bill C-31 is partly a debate about the detail of our refugee system, partly a response to the public's desire to stop large groups of illegal refugees from taking advantage of our generosity. The devil, as always, is in the details. Let us remember that nobody is attempting here, in my opinion, to stop refugees from coming to Canada. Proportionately we take more than most countries.

We want to stop the organized trafficking of refugees using Canada as a target of their activities because of our international reputation as a simple country. This uses scarce Canadian resources that are better utilized getting the horrendous backlog of legitimate immigration applicants—800,000 and counting I believe—processed, letting those poor, quiet people waiting patiently in other countries know whether the answer is yes or no to being allowed to come to Canada.

Like our forefathers who ensured that the Chinese labourers rested with the fallen Canadian soldiers, I want to ensure that we continue our national generosity of taking care of all refugees who come to our shores, while placing reasonable restrictions on how quickly they become Canadians based on their method of arrival. We owe it to all Canadians, past and present, to continue quietly building this simple country we call home.

Thank you.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

Thank you, sir.

Good afternoon, Mr. Amble. I guess it's good evening; it's ten o'clock over there.

3:45 p.m.

John Amble As an Individual

It's close. It's coming close to nine o'clock.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

I am really pleased to see the palm trees behind you.

3:45 p.m.

As an Individual

John Amble

You wouldn't know it, but the weather is not quite so nice here.

3:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

Thank you, sir, for participating with the committee. You have up to ten minutes.

3:45 p.m.

As an Individual

John Amble

Thank you.

Mr. Chair, honourable members, I am privileged to speak to you today. Thank you for having me back and thank you for the opportunity to provide some comments on the bill at hand, Bill C-31.

I have studied extensively the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism in the West. During the course of my research, I have looked closely at the connection between the threat of terrorism, and asylum laws in refugee application-processing programs. I am not an expert on the intricacies of asylum laws in any given country, including Canada, but I am happy to speak to the security implications of the systems that I have encountered.

My comments will be limited to these security implications. I hope you understand, if I acknowledge areas in which I might be less than qualified to offer an assessment of aspects of the bill in question that extend beyond the realm of security, and particularly the dangers of terrorism. I want to strongly qualify my comments by stating that the risk of terrorism is not proportionate to the number of a country's immigrants, either legal or illegal; to the number of approved asylum requests; or to the number of people who remain, say, in a country despite being denied asylum.

However, the evidence does show that a risk arises when either asylum and refugee processing structures are not properly developed or the laws are inadequately enforced.

It is in the highest tradition of western democratic values to welcome immigrants of all origins. Nowhere have such values been put into practice more fully than in North America, particularly in Canada. However, equally important are our government's responsibilities of ensuring accountability and providing security.

As an American, I can say unequivocally that Canada's reputation as a nation that both welcomes and values its immigrants is well known in the U.S. Living in the U.K. and travelling across Europe and elsewhere in the world, I certainly have the sense that Canada is viewed as a beacon of hope and opportunity around the globe. However, paired with this welcoming reputation is a certain awareness, at times even a cynical appreciation, of Canada's very generous social welfare programs and their extensive availability to newly arrived immigrants.

This is something shared with other countries as well, mainly those in western Europe. Too often, this generosity is exploited, as it often is here in the U.K., and notably in Scandinavian countries as well, for example. As I understand it, ending the manipulative exploitation of such programs, which sometimes carries on for an extended period of time, is one of several objectives of the bill being discussed here today.

From my standpoint, I would argue that there is also a security component to this. Recent history from European countries certainly shows that Byzantine refugee legal structures are sometimes exploited by people who threaten the security of the host country. Thus, you have senior radicalizing preachers and a number of convicted terrorists who have claimed asylum and subsequently received surprisingly large sums of money through very generous social welfare programs. Many of these individuals are currently in prison.

To give an example that involves Canada, in the so-called millennium bomb plot, an individual named Ahmed Ressam planned to detonate a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport, which was thwarted at the Canada-U.S. border in December of 1999, as I'm sure you all know. Ressam had entered Canada in 1994 on a fake passport. He was arrested and he applied for refugee status. He was released pending a hearing and subsequently received several years' worth of social welfare benefits. When his application was denied, he appealed, and that too was denied in 1998. However, no removal order could be carried out, because at that time, he was at a training camp in Afghanistan. He would later return on a fraudulently obtained Canadian passport.

Incidentally, another millennium plot was disrupted just days later, halfway around the world in Frankfurt, Germany. Four men were arrested who were believed to be planning to blow up the Strasbourg Christmas market just across the border in France. Two of those arrested were failed asylum seekers living in Britain, whom the British government had failed to deport for several years.

Now, anecdotes are not a suitable substitute for the broader data that appropriately reflects the realities on which effective policy is based. But such incidents do illuminate the security implications of refugee and asylum policy, and are instructive in any discussion of such policy.

Practically speaking, I would like to highlight two factors of immigration laws that can weaken a country's ability to safeguard against the threat of terrorism. The first is when systems are overburdened and the asylum application process is delayed by backlogs, potentially allowing somebody entering the country under false pretenses and with a goal of conducting a terrorist attack a lengthy period of time in which to move freely within the country.

The second factor is a matter of inadequate enforcement of immigration laws, allowing failed asylum seekers to remain in the country. This is a problem that seems to impact the U.K. quite considerably.

To mitigate against such dangers, there should be some means of maintaining an awareness of where those asylum seekers are, so that removal orders can be implemented for those whose applications or appeals are denied.

In addition to addressing the challenge of knowing where asylum seekers are once they enter Canada, it is also important to know specifically who they are. For a variety of reasons, this task can be considerably more difficult than it sounds.

Insofar as it is prudent to know who exactly is entering the country, not just as a refugee but under any visa or permit program, biometric data provides a very valuable tool. I understand that expanding the use of such information is part of the legislation this committee is examining.

I'll conclude here with three recommendations based on my research that I believe can enhance the security of Canada's refugee laws.

First, every effort should be made to expedite the process to grant refugee or asylum status in the minimum period of time that continues to allow for a complete and secure investigation. In addition to making the process run more smoothly generally by removing backlogs, I think such an action can have a real impact on improving security by eliminating the sometimes very long window during which an asylum seeker who enters the country with any sort of nefarious intent might be free to, for instance, plan and execute an attack.

Second, a system should recognize that some countries of origin produce a disproportionate number of those involved with terrorism globally. To that end, identifying a list of so-called safe countries, as this bill would allow, can also have a very positive second-order effect. It will allow for greater emphasis on applications from individuals coming from those countries with known human rights abuse issues, some of which are also more likely to produce a worryingly large number of the world's terrorists. That being said, this should also be balanced with the very critical appreciation that terrorists may also, at any time, arrive from countries that don't fit the traditional profile.

Finally, refugee processes should embrace newly developed advances in technology, as I discussed earlier, such as those that allow agencies to collect, access, and store biometric information safely. Relationships with other governments that also make use of such tools should be leveraged. Ties with countries with whom Canada has enjoyed long-standing information-sharing relationships should be enhanced, but new agreements should also be formalized where prudent.

Like the U.S., Canada has historically benefited from a great degree of security by virtue of the vast oceans to its east and west. But as threats to national security have evolved to encompass many for which these natural barriers are less effective, and as global population movements have become simpler, faster, and cheaper, information-sharing relationships with a wider variety of partners can be expected to pay major dividends.

With that, Mr. Chair, I will end my remarks.

Thank you again for the invitation to appear today. I look forward to answering any questions you may have.

3:50 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Conservative David Tilson

Thank you, Mr. Amble. I'm sure the committee will have some questions for you.

The first person to ask questions is John Weston.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston Conservative West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

Mr. Amble, thank you for being with us.

Many witnesses have come before our committee. You were here several months ago, and it's probably a testament to the rigour of your academic study and its important substance that I remember clearly your testimony from several months ago. I suspect several of my colleagues here do as well.

I recall that you talked about sleeper cells in the U.K. and about how people who were born and bred in that country were themselves being radicalized.

That's a bit of a backdrop, because we're also looking today at refugees in the context of an overall refugee policy. The kinds of stories that Sharalyn related to us this morning make any red-blooded Canadian quiver. We're all united in our desire to continue to be the country known for our compassion and as a safe haven for people from around the world.

I appreciate all of you being here.

Our Charter of Rights talks about balance, and you've used the word “balance” a couple of times in what you said today, Mr. Amble. It talks about certain undeniable rights that may be limited in ways that are explicable in a free and democratic society—I'm paraphrasing a little bit.

The point is that we need to achieve balance. The detention provisions that are being looked at here would apply to a very small percentage of refugees—fewer than 1%, in fact—who come by way of what's known as “irregular arrival”.

My first question is this, then. Can you focus us on balance? If we desire to be a safe haven, if we desire to keep our gates open for those who would come to our country, persecuted either because of their sexual orientation or their political belief or anything else, how do we achieve that balance while keeping out the kinds of people who threaten our democracy and the safety and security of our children and our families?

3:55 p.m.

As an Individual

John Amble

There are several things I'd like to highlight. One is that a number of principles need to be embodied in whatever effective asylum laws are put in place. Chief amongst those principles is the balance between security, accountability, openness, and fairness. Certainly, the stories of those who see Canada as a refuge, who have faced persecution for a variety of reasons, are heartbreaking at times.

In the interest of balance, I think it's also important to recognize the large number of stories of people who have abused those sorts of systems. This happens frequently. It tends to be a bigger problem, I think, in the U.K. and a few other European countries than maybe it has been in Canada. However, there's the example I gave you of Ahmed Ressam, the millennium bomb plotter who blatantly abused the Canadian refugee process. It happens elsewhere as well, and it's part of the trend in terms of liberalizing immigration laws.

In 1983, for instance, there were 80,000 asylum applications across the entire continent of Europe. Nine years later, in 1992, there were 700,000. It rose by almost a factor of 10. Islamists took advantage of the opportunity to hide in these massive crowds, and many of them became part of what would later be described as the first wave of Europe-based jihadists, and would become key figures in a number of terror cases. Abu Hamza, the notorious firebrand preacher who's currently serving a seven-year prison sentence and facing extradition from the U.K. to the U.S. when he's released, was among them. Ramzi bin al-Shibh eventually served as a Europe-based coordinator for the 9/11 attacks, after having been given asylum status in Germany.

I would say that an awareness of those stories and many others should inform effective policy.

3:55 p.m.

Conservative

John Weston Conservative West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country, BC

We've heard from people who oppose the provisions proposed by this government that up to 6% of the refugees who come in via irregular ways could be security threats.

I'm going to turn my attention to Mr. Deakin-Macey from my home province of British Columbia. You mentioned the incidents of the Sun Sea and the Ocean Lady. We found that 41 persons from those two groups were either considered to be security risks or actual terrorists. That was a fairly large portion of the persons involved.

I suspect, based on your background, that you want to defend our refugee program for generations to come. Yet if we were to allow such people to roam free, not be detained, what do you think would be the impact on future Canadians of our willingness to keep our gates open?

4 p.m.

Past President, Board of Directors, Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society, As an Individual

Michael Deakin-Macey

Based on the reaction the Canadian public had, which was published, for example, in the Toronto Star, three out of five Canadians—60%—said that we should have just turned the boat around and sent it away. God forbid—the thing probably would have sunk, and then we would have had the horrible responsibility for having done that and would have been out rescuing them. That's the same proportion as the federal election. It took a lot of moxie, in light of what was going on, to say we were going to override all of that and bring them in anyway.

I think detention is entirely appropriate in terms of what goes on. When you think in terms of some of the security implications amongst other things, you pretty much have to detain. We did the right thing. We made sure every one of them was well taken care of. They got medical care right away. This was the Canadian way—in keeping with how we lead our lives and how we treat people. Despite that, we still found 41 out of the total, which I believe was 76 on the Ocean Lady and 492 on the other.