Good morning, and thank you for the invitation to speak with you this morning about Bill C-31.
I have been doing research into immigration law in Canada and Australia for nearly 20 years now. I teach refugee law in both countries.
This morning, I am going to talk about the mandatory detention system that is in effect in Australia.
I am also pleased to take questions on any aspect of Bill C-31.
I would like to thank you for having the presentation I will be making this morning translated for me. Given that 10 minutes goes by very quickly, I am going to begin by making a recommendation.
I'm just going to turn to the final point I want to make.
Australia now has more than two decades of experience with a mandatory detention scheme for people seeking refugee protection. Almost everybody seeking refugee protection is detained at some point. This system has not achieved its deterrence objectives. It has harmed many people and it has cost thousands of millions of dollars. In some respects, as I will detail momentarily, it is not as severe as the Bill C-31 proposals. For this reason I recommend to you that Bill C-31 be amended to eliminate the designated foreign national regime and to eliminate the mandatory detention scheme.
Recognizing that mass arrivals do provide serious challenges for any government, I recommend as an alternative to these provisions that you consider, in the case of a mass arrival, which is to be defined as a group of more than 50 individuals, where there is potential reason for detention under the current IRPA provisions—for example, when there is a difficulty establishing the identity of individuals—that if a group of more than 50 has arrived at the same time, the schedule for detention reviews be amended to allow for adequate and appropriate consideration of those individuals. The current detention regime requires reviews at 48 hours, 7 days, and 30 days, as you are aware. In the case of a group of more than 50 people arriving, it would be appropriate to alter this schedule to have an initial review at 20 days, a subsequent review at 25 days, and then move on to the ordinary scheme of reviews at 30-day intervals for any individuals who would still be detained after 45 days.
You will have heard from other witnesses about the first two reasons to reject the proposed mandatory detention scheme. This scheme is in breach of several provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it also is in breach of key international human rights documents to which Canada has long been committed. What I will focus my time on this morning is the evidence from Australia.
Australian evidence has now established that the detention regime there is not deterring people from seeking refugee protection in Australia. The evidence from Australia also demonstrates that this type of detention leads to lasting harms to individuals who are subject to it.
The mandatory detention regime for all unauthorized arrivals to Australia began in 1989. The majority of those who arrive in Australia without a visa are briefly detained, but most people are now granted a bridging visa—some, if they arrive at an airport, within a matter of days. For boat arrivals it's usually within two or three months. This bridging visa serves to release people from detention into the community.
Since 2001, Australia has had two separate streams for offshore arrivals and for mainland arrivals. As of January of this year, which is the midpoint of the Australian fiscal year, there were 4,783 people in one form or another of immigration detention, including community detention, which we would call release on conditions. The estimated spending for the current fiscal year on immigration detention in Australia is $629 million Australian, and that is pretty close to par with the Canadian dollar right now.
The Australian detention regime has been under active scrutiny since 2008. Some of the changes that have been made to this scheme include a move towards community detention rather than detention centres.
Children and families, as a matter of policy, are not to be held in detention centres. They are housed in special alternative places of detention, for the most part. The parliamentary inquiry that reported in March of this year found that there were still a few children in detention, but it's against policy.
Immigration detention is now officially considered to be a last resort in the Australian scheme, and all immigration detention is to be for the shortest possible time. The newest parliamentary inquiry in Australia is recommending a maximum of three months of detention time.
If we look at a comparison between Australia's immigration detention scheme and the scheme that would result in Canada from Bill C-31, we find that they are similar, in that there is a two-tiered system that is punitive to irregular boat arrivals.
In Australia, the time for people to be in detention is theoretically indefinite but presumptively shorter than 12 months. The Bill C-31 scheme is 12 months, but theoretically indefinite, so there's longer detention there.
Children and their families are not to be detained. The Canadian proposal, by contrast, says that young children will not be detained but may be separated from families.
In Australia, those who are in detention have priority processing for refugee claims in order to ensure the shortest possible time in detention. There is no such priority under Bill C-31 for people detained in Canada.
In the Australian scheme, anybody who is held in detention and making an asylum claim is granted legal aid for the preliminary and subsequent merit review stages of the asylum process. There's no guarantee of legal aid support in the Canadian proposal, Bill C-31.
It's also notable that Australian experience over the past 10 years has shown that a very high number of individuals who arrive on boats actually end up with refugee status; the appendix to the parliamentary report says 90%. I recall earlier figures suggesting it's closer to 80%, but that is still a very high acceptance rate, demonstrating that people who make these kinds of journeys are in fact those who are the most desperate.
The Australian mandatory detention regime has been found, in a number of inquiries, to breach both international and domestic human rights. It has not reduced the number of people coming to Australia to seek protection. There is a new study out of Monash University—which is not yet published, but which I heard about at a conference about three weeks ago—suggesting that the variations in rates of people arriving in boats in Australia can be completely attributed to conditions in sending countries, as well as weather conditions, rather than changes in Australian law.
There have been four major inquiries into the effectiveness of the Australian system since 2001, adding tens of millions of dollars to the cost. The evidence, which is now widely accepted—and this is reflected in the parliamentary report—includes the following: there are very high levels of suicide and other self-harm behaviours among the detained community; there are very high levels of depression and of post-traumatic stress disorder; these mental health problems affect the refugee determination process and make the process more difficult to manage; prolonged detention exacerbates previous trauma; and the detention regime harms family relationships and children's mental health in particular, whether the children are in detention or separated from their families because of detention.
Current developments in Australia include a commitment to move to community detention rather than closed facilities, both because of reduction of harm and because of reduction of cost, which has proven quite persuasive.
There was a temporary regime in Australia from 2001 to 2007 that restricted family reunification rights for people arriving on boats. This regime has been dismantled, so this is a departure from the direction that Bill C-31 is heading in.
There has been extensive work to improve conditions within detention centres. The bridging visa program has been expanded, with a sharp uptick since last November, so that more people are getting out of detention.
Last, the parliamentary report on Australia's immigration detention network was just released this past March—so a number of weeks ago—running to 356 pages.
I'll conclude there. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.