Madam Speaker, I am pleased to address Bill C-31 on immigration and the protection of refugees.
Bill C-31 was introduced on April 6, 2000. It replaces the current act, which dates back to 1976 and which has been amended over 30 times.
When the minister made her announcement on this long awaited bill, she called it a tough piece of legislation. She said that the bill sought to close the door on illegal migrants, in order to fully open it for immigrants. Indeed, a large part of the bill puts the emphasis on closing that door by strengthening the measures designed to fight fraud, false statements and abuse, prohibiting criminals and those who present a security risk from entering Canada, imposing harsher penalties and so on.
When we read the bill, we notice that while it includes several measures to close the door on illegal migrants, as the minister said, most of the measures announced to fully open the door for immigrants are merely proposals to change the regulations. As pointed out by the Canadian Alliance member earlier, many of our questions are left unanswered, because a fair number of measures which we thought would be included in the bill will have to be included in regulations. We do not really know what is really in the bill.
With this bill, the minister is seeking among other things to respond to a strong current of public opinion in the United States which feels that Canada has become a kind of Club Med for terrorists and that the United States should tighten up its border controls, which is liable to be harmful to trade between the two countries.
Among the measures aimed at discouraging illegal border crossings, the bill includes the imposition of heavy penalties, namely fines of up to $1 million and a life sentence for human traffickers and smugglers.
Revision of the act, as well as cracking down on illegals, is also intended to lighten the load on a system that for several years has not allowed Canada to attain its annual objective of 300,000 newcomers. I might point out that, paradoxically, at this time there are more than 400,000 people within Canada and elsewhere who are awaiting word on whether they will be able to settle in Canada.
Clearly, the present system shows that increasing numbers of people wish to enter Canada, but also that the process and procedure in place for examining both applications for refugee status and for permanent residency are flawed and that there is room for improvement in the way these are processed.
The need to speed up the refugee determination process is one of the most positive measures contained in this bill. The minister has, in fact, indicated that in future the time limit will be 72 hours instead of 3 months for a refugee claim to be filed with the Immigration and Refugee Board, and it must bring down its decision within six to nine months.
The minister also pointed out that her bill would significantly simplify refugee claim processing in order to reduce the maximum time frame from five to two years. New measures will be put in place to modernize the procedure for selecting skilled immigrant workers and temporary workers.
These measures, it should be pointed out, would not apply to Quebec, because under the Canada-Quebec agreement of 1991, Quebec chooses its own economic immigrants. Refugee selection and family reunification remain under federal jurisdiction.
In terms of Canada's human rights obligations, as a signatory to international human rights documents, Canada has certain human rights obligations. This new bill must take account of the standards established in these documents. Unfortunately, despite a few references, the bill does not incorporate the relevant texts.
For example, in the case of the 1951 refugee convention, although the mandate of the high commissioner for refugees is to protect refugees, this responsibility also falls to the contracting countries.
The basic instrument, indeed the cornerstone of the international refugee protection system, is respect for the principle of no return recognized by the member states and enshrined in article 33, which provides, and I quote:
No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.
At clause 90(2)( a ), the bill refers to the Convention Against Torture and provides for the protection of persons threatened with torture within the meaning of article 1 of the convention.
However, the bill does not fully respect the provisions of article 3 of the convention, which prohibits the return of anyone to face torture. In fact, according to the bill, the prohibition does not apply to people considered inadmissible on grounds of criminality or security, as in clause 108(2).
Article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires governments to give the child's best interest primary consideration in all actions that concern him or her. However, the bill proposes only that the best interest of the child be taken into account.
The bill provides for the automatic detention of any person entering Canada as part of an organized operation, but gives no special status to refugee status claimants who are minors. However, article 37(b) of the convention that:
—States Parties shall ensure that:
(b) No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;
The convention also provides, in article 22, that:
States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international or domestic law and procedures shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present Convention and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments.
As for the third instrument, which the bill does not address, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report on the Canadian refugee determination system a few months ago.
Bill C-31 before us today addresses two of the report's recommendations by including an appeal on the merits for refugee status claimants and by making the pre-removal risk assessment part of the decision taken by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
In the opinion of the Bloc Quebecois, however, there are many other recommendations which the bill completely fails to address and which aggravate the existing situation. For instance, the report recommends that the decision as to admissibility should be the responsibility of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
In this regard, the bill, on the contrary, widens the categories of people whose claims will be deemed inadmissible and who will therefore never have an opportunity to be heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board.
The whole issue of detention is another component of the bill. In Canada, we have had an extensive debate on this issue, a debate that began, among other places, at the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration and which, I am convinced, will continue during the review of Bill C-31. The debate is primarily on clauses 50 to 55.
The Bloc Quebecois is particularly concerned by the fact that the bill provides for the automatic detention of any person who arrives in Canada in the context of an operation organized by traffickers. More specifically, the Bloc Quebecois opposes the fact that the bill does not grant any special status to refugee claimants who are minors, in spite of the fact that the UNHCR recently pointed out to Immigration Canada that it was opposed to the international rules governing the imprisonment of young refugees, except in certain cases and for very short periods of time, as provided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Therefore, the Bloc Quebecois will continue its fight to ensure that refugee claimants who are minors be exempted from the detention rules. In addition to clandestine immigration, the bill mentions three main reasons for detention, namely the risk that the person will flee the country, the fact that the person may be a danger to public security, or cases where it is not possible to establish the person's identity. These three reasons are already included in the current act. However, in several respects, the bill broadens the scope of the provisions on detention.
In addition, the bill accords new powers to immigration officers to detain individuals at points of entry for purposes of “administrative expediency” in order to complete an examination, for example. The officers may also detain people when they have reasonable grounds to suspect that they are inadmissible on grounds of security or of having violated human rights. In this regard, we wonder whether it was really important to add the new grounds for detention based on expediency and doubt, reasons of danger to the public or the risk of failure to appear covering already all the situations requiring detention.
The bill broadens the measures pertaining to detention without warrant. At the moment, arrest without warrant is permitted only in rather limited circumstances. Under the bill, immigration officers will be able to arrest and detain without warrant an individual they consider inadmissible, even if they are not about to be returned. This gives a lot of power to these officers, who, in many cases according to the report of the standing committee lack the training to make the necessary decisions on, going as far at times as, the merits of the applicant.
We are therefore basically concerned about the increased powers given the immigration officers in decisions on detaining individuals and the assessment of very specific applications.
In addition, the bill expands the measures pertaining to detention for reasons of identity. Any requirement for pieces of identity is a threat to refugees. In fact, these people are often required to flee the country without documentation because their identity is precisely what exposes them to persecution.
At the present time, detentions for lack of identification can only take place at entry points. Under the bill, a person will now be able to be detained within the framework of any procedure covered by the law if he or she does not establish identity. This means that refugee claimants could be detained if they do not establish their identity at the hearing to determine refugee status.
The bill also envisages regulations including special considerations for the detention of minor children. In our opinion—as I have already stated clearly before—the principle is fundamentally sound. What remains to be seen, however, is what these regulations will comprise.
It is no secret that, as far as the detention of refugee claimants is concerned, our preference would have been to have the main principles set out in the legislation rather than in regulations. Clearly, amendments will have to be introduced to clarify this situation, so this clarification will not be through regulations. Instead, it ought to be enshrined in the law.
As for claims for protection, they are primarily governed by clauses 89 and 90.
Under Bill C-31, what are presently two distinct decisions, refugee status determination and review of the risk of removal, will be a single decision made by the Immigration and Refugee Board.
For every claim for refugee protection, and every application for examination of risk of removal, the board will decide whether the claimant is a Convention refugee as defined in 1951, amended in the 1960s. It will also determine whether the claimant is a person in need of protection, that is to say a person who would be subject to a danger of torture within the meaning of the Convention Against Torture to which I referred to a moment ago, listing it among the three major conventions: one against torture, one on the rights of the child, and the UN convention relating to the status of refugees.
It will also be necessary to determine whether the claimant's life would be in danger or whether he could be subjected to cruel or unusual treatment or penalties, but only if the person is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of the state, if there is no possibility of haven in that country, if the risk is not related to legitimate sanctions that meet international standards, and if that risk does not have to do with the unavailability of medical care.
We will also have to establish that the claimant is a member of a category of persons whose need for protection is recognized through regulations.
The important change is that when a claim is reviewed, a single ruling will integrate two decisions, namely the one on the determination of refugee status and the one on the risks involved in sending the claimant back to his or her country of origin.
I believe this will significantly speed up the review of these claims, since both elements will be integrated. That will certainly help us alleviate the human suffering when we review each of these claims.
It is to be noted that the exclusion clauses of the refugee convention, namely sections E and F, apply to refugees as defined in the convention and to persons to be protected. These exclusions include, among others, criminals, those who committed a serious crime outside the country of refuge, and any person found guilty of actions that are contrary to the goals and principles of the United Nations.
I have two comments to make in this regard. Unifying the decision making process at the Immigration and Refugee Board will undoubtedly have the effect of making the process faster and more effective.
As I said earlier, there were often cases involving a refugee claim, where the claim would be reviewed and a ruling made. At times, perhaps often, the ruling was negative. That was followed by a review of the risks involved if the claimant was sent back. The process was considerably longer.
This process created human suffering and certainly did not make it easier to accept or reject the claim. In fact, it slowed down or even blocked the whole process. I believe that grouping these two rulings will speed up the review process.
The reference to the convention against torture is new in the bill, and we are delighted by it. It is new, and I would say it is important. However, the definition of a person in need of protection found in the bill is not entirely consistent with the convention against torture, which, unlike the refugee convention, contains no exemption clause.
Article 3 of the convention against torture prohibits the return of anyone who may face torture, regardless of what the individual may have done in the past or could do in the future. In this regard, what is contained in the bill by no means reflects the provisions and articles of the convention against torture.
When this bill is studied, things will have to be levelled out. If it is really the intention of this government to draw on the convention and reflect the spirit of it in the bill, amendments will certainly be necessary in order to regularize the situation.
Another important aspect is the matter of claims for protection and, more importantly, their determination, as covered in clauses 94 to 96. Under the bill, only refugee claims deemed admissible by Citizenship and Immigration Canada will be heard. This is the present state of affairs under the current legislation. However, the bill provides that an examination of the criminal record of a claimant that might result in an ineligibility ruling will now be conducted as soon as the claimant has entered the county and obtained refugee status and no longer at the end of the process.
The bill also broadens the categories of persons whose claims will be ruled ineligible, which means that they will not be referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board for a hearing. At the present time, claims are ruled ineligible on criminal grounds only if the minister issues a public threat certificate. They will now be ruled ineligible if the claimant: a ) [has been] convicted in Canada of an offence under an Act of Parliament that may be punished by a maximum term of imprisonment of at least 10 years and for which a sentence of at least two years was imposed; or b ) [has been] convicted of an offence outside Canada that, if committed in Canada, would constitute an offence under an Act of Parliament that may be punished by a maximum term of imprisonment of at least 10 years.
In this regard, I wish to make a comment. Automatically excluding persons convicted of offences outside Canada poses a particular threat to refugees. Too often, the criminal law system is used as a means of persecution. It is not unusual for victims of persecution to be sentenced on the basis of false accusations manufactured in order to convict them of crimes they did not commit.
As for the first paragraph—having been convicted in Canada of an offence that may be punished—we agree that, at that stage, an assessment should take this factor into account. As for the second paragraph, I think some caution is in order. The evidence must be thoroughly verified and the claim assessed more flexibly.
As for an asylum claim, and more specifically the process of claiming asylum, this has been the subject of heated discussion in recent years. There is no denying that the process is slow and difficult to comprehend.
If I take the example of an office covering the territory of my riding in Montreal, there is a wait of over 12 months for a ruling. It cannot be said that this is an adequate refugee determination system and process.
This cannot be described as stringent and making it possible for decisions to be reached within a reasonable length of time, on the contrary. Not only does it have the impact of creating personal dramas, as I have already said, by delaying, deferring a decision made by an Immigration Canada office, but it also does not allow a fair review, within a reasonable length of time, of the cases of those who are awaiting rulings. This therefore creates a dual problem with a dual impact.
When, as I have already said, we know what the objectives of immigration are, and when we can see how long the wait is, there are grounds for concern. It is therefore obvious that we must make a commitment to work toward a renewed refugee determination process because people are having to wait too long and this creates serious personal dramas.
According to the bill, applications for protection will be heard by the Refugee Protection Division. At the present time, this is done by the refugee status section, as we know. This is a change in Immigration and Refugee Board terminology. Applicants will have a hearing before a board member, whereas at present a panel of two hears the case. Appeals against a decision by the Refugee Protection Division may be submitted to the Refugee Appeal Division by the applicant or the minister. This division will not hold a hearing but will base its decision on written submissions.
In that regard, the bill does not include any change to the appointment process of board members. Over the past several years, the Bloc Quebecois has repeatedly criticized the Liberals for constantly making political appointments to the Immigration and Refugee Board. We believe it is essential that any change in the asylum claim process should seek to guarantee the integrity of the refugee status determination system.
In order to achieve that, it is critical to put an end to political appointments to the board and to establish a transparent process—and I mean transparent—to appoint and replace IRB members, so as to ensure full impartiality and selection based on the candidates' qualifications and professional experience, and not, as is often the case now, on their political affiliation.
Since the bill provides that the decisions will be made by a single member, it becomes even more important and in fact essential that all the decision makers have the highest qualifications. This goes without saying. I even think that some Liberal members might agree with that statement. Several political appointments were made to the Immigration and Refugee Board.
With this new legislation on immigration and refugee status determination, the Liberal government opposite has a unique opportunity to show transparency and good will and to clearly demonstrate that the government will set up an appointment process that is not based on partisanship or on services rendered to the Liberal Party of Canada, but on people's professional experience and on their ability to make informed decisions.
Unfortunately, when it introduced its bill, the government missed the opportunity—and so did we—to establish a clear process. We will review this issue in committee and I hope the government will look at the auditor general's report and set up a clear process that is not merely based on the experience and expertise of people in certain political parties, but on professional experience.
Another important factor is the introduction of appeals on the merits. Clauses 105 and 106 address one of the fundamental weaknesses of the present refugee determination system. The absence of an appeal mechanism was very recently criticized by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in its report on the Canadian refugee determination system. It should be noted, however, that the proposed appeal provides only limited protection to refugee claimants because it is based on written submissions only.
A large percentage of claims are ruled ineligible on grounds of credibility. It will therefore be extremely difficult to challenge such rulings of non-credibility in writing. Furthermore, written submissions also raise the problem of claimants without representation, which is often the case because of the inadequacy of legal aid.
Another comment I would have with respect to this paragraph and this part of the clause is that the bill provides no guarantee of the independence of the Refugee Appeal Division or of the greater expertise of its members with respect to refugee determination. If an appeal is to adequately correct the errors of the first level, the appeal division must obviously be a distinct and higher level.
In fact, it seems hard to guarantee the impartiality or appearance of impartiality of the process when the members of the Appeal Division are called upon to judge decisions made by their own colleagues in the section of first instance. Such a structure, in which members of the division are required to review themselves, does not imply a critical eye, and cannot therefore in our opinion present the necessary guarantees of independence.
As for the whole issue of family reunification, I will make a small comment if I may. There is very little in the bill on family reunification, with the exception of certain measures which are to come in the regulations. This is the problem with this bill—the one to which my colleague from the Canadian Alliance referred just now. The bill refers to principles only, and makes several references to the regulations.
I believe it is the fundamental right of parliamentarians to be able to examine a bill that includes a certain number of clauses instead of one that merely refers them, and to a certain extent the general public, to subsequent regulatory amendments.
As far as the entire issue of family reunification is concerned, the bill has very little to say, referring instead to provisions which are to come in the regulations once they are added. The government has, however, announced certain measures relating to family reunification. It would, in our opinion, be advisable for the promised measures to be integrated into the bill, as I have said, rather than just restating some old principles.
As parliamentarians, we would like to study the provisions, debate them and discuss them in committee. The problem is that we do not have the regulations before us. We cannot make a proper decision on this bill, because many of the measures are to come, many will not be incorporated in the bill. In the end, I think that each parliamentarian is entitled to examine the merits of this bill in terms of its provisions and not in terms of future regulatory measures.
The bill proposes to prevent people on welfare from sponsoring members of their family, including spouses and minor children, unless they have special permission from the minister. In our opinion, this is interference in the right to family unity because of economic status. At the moment, spouses and minor children are the only members of a family that may be sponsored by a recipient of welfare. We believe this represents serious interference, and it is clear that we will never agree to two people having different privileges.
There cannot be a double standard based on economic factors, on whether a person is on welfare or is working. I think that the right is fundamental, and in this regard, we will clearly be moving amendments.
As my time is running out, I will conclude by saying that the Bloc Quebecois regrets the harsh tone adopted by the minister in her speech, in her presentation, the hard words chosen by the government to introduce the bill and the accompanying press releases. From the way it addresses the question, we think that the government, which seems to be trying to reassure the Canadian right, is reinforcing prejudice against refugees and immigrants. It is thus encouraging division.
In recent years, the Bloc Quebecois has said on several occasions that Canada's refugee determination system should have two essential features: it must be quick and fair to a person who is legitimately seeking asylum and it must deter those who overburden the system with unjustified claims. This slowness in processing claims results in unacceptable human dramas and puts people and families in extremely difficult situations.
For example, the average time to process a claim at the IRB's Montreal office is ten months. Moreover, at the end of December 1999, there were over 7,000 asylum seekers in Montreal who were waiting for a hearing. That is one third of all cases in Canada. Indeed, one third of all such cases in Canada are handled by the IRB's Montreal office. Is this not evidence of the laxness of the refugee determination system?
We also believe that the new bill on immigration does not reflect explicitly enough the actual scope of all the powers gained by Quebec in this area. According to the Quebec Minister of Relations with the Citizens and Immigration, Robert Perreault:
The act will have to include firm commitments in that respect ...Provisions will have to be added to the current bill to ensure, among other things, the respect of Quebec's powers regarding the selection of temporary workers or the maintaining of a distinct program for investor immigrants.
That statement was made by the Quebec minister of citizenship and immigration. Clearly we will have amendments to clarify these two aspects, which are not included in the bill.
The bill—I have mentioned this many times since it was introduced—does not clarify Quebec's jurisdiction in this regard. As we know, Quebec is responsible for independent immigration. We would therefore have liked to see this mentioned in the bill. But the bill does not make this clear. There must be clauses spelling out Quebec's jurisdiction in this area.
In addition to the issue of Quebec's jurisdiction, it is important to mention that, although the bill proposes amendments with respect to refugee claims, nowhere does Ottawa undertake to assume the costs resulting from its handling of those claims. In fact, if the federal government believes in the effectiveness of the measures proposed in its bill, it should be able to undertake to assume these costs, and to do so until those affected have been granted refugee status, have been granted permanent residence, or have left the country.
Last February, it will be recalled, Quebec joined with Ontario and British Columbia in criticizing the federal government's handing of the movement of asylum seekers, calling for major changes, and demanding that the federal government, which is responsible for the entire refugee determination process, assume all the costs of providing services to these individuals, including social assistance, legal aid and education.
I would remind members that, right now, it is costing Quebec over $80 million annually to look after people waiting for a ruling from the federal government's Immigration and Refugee Board.
Clearly, the Bloc Quebecois is greatly concerned by the fact that many crucial points are relegated to the regulations—and I do not believe I am the only one to have said so today—rather than being part of the bill itself.
At the present time we cannot be totally in favour of the bill, obviously. Too many measures, too many provisions, are part of the regulations, preventing us from giving our support at second reading.
What we can do is to state that, at most, we are in favour of the principle behind the bill, but we cannot come out in favour of the bill at this point with our eyes closed. We are going to look at it in committee, propose and debate amendments, and then bring it back to the House for third reading. That is when our decision will be made. I must say, however, that it is disappointing that some of the measures are contained, not in the bill, but in the regulations.