Thank you, Mr. Chairman, honourable members of Parliament, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning. It's a great pleasure to be here. I'd like to thank you for inviting us to this important hearing.
This bill is of interest to the European Union, mostly on two aspects. First I would like to say that we are ready to answer any questions you might have on how we deal with these issues in Europe, but we're not here to comment on your legislative process. It's not for us to comment on draft bills you deal with. We are more than happy to answer any questions you have on our own policies.
Why is this of particular interest to us? There are two aspects. The first is immigration policy. For us, Canada is a model as concerns the immigration policy and the resulting multicultural society you have, the pluralism. You probably know that in Europe we have some difficulties with these issues, with integration. Some have stated it's the end of multiculturalism, and so on. Therefore, we watch all this with great interest, and we have made reports on that to Europe.
The situation is also different in Europe, of course. We have nation states with very homogeneous populations, where immigrants stand out, whereas in Canada, as you know, almost everybody is an immigrant or is descended from immigrants. Immigration into Europe is mostly of a different quality than in Canada. In Canada you choose most of your immigrants. You want qualified people, whereas in Europe most immigrants come from the south, and the majority are almost illiterate, and so on. So it's a different situation.
The second aspect of why it's interesting for us is the visa issue. Citizens from three of our member states—Romania, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic—still require visas to come to Canada, whereas Canadian citizens have visa-free travel within the entire European Union. For the countries concerned, but also for the European Union as a whole, it's a serious issue because of matters of principle. Our visa policy is based on the principle of reciprocity. If you grant visa-free access to one country, then that country should also grant you visa-free access to its territory. It's also because of solidarity among member states. This is a problem, especially the reintroduction of the visa for the Czech Republic. We are working to solve this issue as soon as possible.
That is linked to asylum policy, I would say; therefore I would like to briefly explain to you immigration and asylum policy in the European Union—just the big headlines—and leave it to the experts to go into the details.
The issue of immigration and asylum is traditionally a responsibility of the member states and national competence. They deal with that in accordance with the applicable international instruments, like the Geneva Convention, and their national laws. However, since 1999, at the European level we have tried to work on a common asylum policy. Like so many things in the European Union, it is a work in progress—a process in progress—and we're still working on it. We do that through legislation at the European level, mostly with directives that then have to be implemented by member states through practical cooperation and the harmonization of national practices.
We work under the principle of minimum standards. That means that member states, individually, can go further in the protection of refugees and grant more rights or more favoured treatment. There are minimum standards for protection: material conditions, such as housing, food, etc.; access to the labour market, which would be granted after 12 months in the territory; and assistance for vulnerable applicants, such as unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, and victims of torture and violence and so on.
After a maximum of six months after they have applied for asylum, they should have their “first instance” procedure.
You may know that in the European Union we have free movement of persons. But also within the 23 member states we have the Schengen, in which there has been an abolition of border controls. You can drive from one member country to the other inside the Schengen area without even slowing down. It's like going from Ontario to Quebec. There are no border controls at all. That means completely free movement, which also applies, of course, to asylum seekers. That has resulted in a problem we call “asylum shopping”. People apply for asylum in one member country, and when they're refused there, they go to another one and reapply there.
To resolve that problem, there is the Dublin II Regulation, which serves to determine which member state is responsible for dealing with an asylum claimant. It's based on certain criteria, such as country of first entry and so on.
Also, fingerprinting of asylum seekers has been introduced. These fingerprints are stored in a database called Eurodac. When an asylum claimant presents himself or herself, fingerprints can be checked to see if an application has been made and treated somewhere else in the European Union. If that's the case, the asylum claim is not admissible.
I should make clear that this only applies to third-country nationals—people who have come from outside the European Union who are asking for asylum inside the European Union. Between member states, we don't accept asylum seekers from one member state who is going to another member state. The treaty itself says that because we have democracies based on the rule law, and we have oversight of this rule of law and the principles of asylum and so on by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice and so on, an asylum seeker from a member state is inadmissible in another member state he or she goes to.
Finally, I have a comment on numbers. We have, on average, around 250,000 asylum seekers in the European Union. The number increased last year with the Arab Spring, as you know.
There are big variations from country to country. Some of the southern member states, which get boatloads of people coming over the Mediterranean Sea, have had a maximum influx. But to give you an idea—