Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak today on Bill C-11 dealing basically with immigration and refugee protection. I am rather familiar with this bill, on which my colleague very eloquently expressed her point of view just a few minutes ago. This bill is quite similar to former Bill C-31.
I want to address a number of issues during my speech, including the population movements which occurred in the 20th century and which were important often for economic reasons, but also for political reasons.
I also want to talk about the detention of children. During consideration of Bill C-31, I was among those who thought it was crucial to address this particular issue for all kinds of reasons, for instance, because Canada has signed the international convention on the rights of the child. In my mind, it was important to uphold the rights of the child, but also the international conventions signed by Canada.
I think the whole issue regarding the detention of children should be clarified in Bill C-11, the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and not in future regulations, as the government intends to do.
I would also like to touch on another issue, namely the administrative slowness of the Immigration and Refugee Board. This is a reality we have to deal with in urban ridings. It is part of our life. People come to see us in our constituency offices because they are facing unacceptably long delays, which, we have to admit, causes terrible human tragedies.
Families are often the main victims of this administrative slowness in the application review process by the Immigration and Refugee Board.
I will also say a few words about illegal immigrants. When the government introduced Bill C-31, it was more or less responding to an alleged new reality that was emerging mostly in western Canada, where more and more illegal immigrants were coming to our country, particularly from Asia.
Members must realize that this phenomenon, which is indeed new, is marginal. It is not true that the majority of those who want to come here, either as permanent residents or as refugees, do it by illegal means. Yes, this phenomenon exists, but it is marginal. Unfortunately, the government is trying to use legislative amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to respond to a new current in western Canada even though it is in fact a minor problem.
Another aspect of the question are the costs entailed by the slowness of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada process. I will come back shortly to a number of figures that are specific to the Montreal offices in terms of claimant waiting time and the number of claimants waiting.
Inevitably, this time frame and the slow administrative pace result in significant administrative costs to the provinces and the Government of Quebec for which the federal government should assume responsibility at some point, insofar as the law does not speed up the process and satisfactorily address the claims currently before the Immigration and Refugee Board.
The last part of my speech concerns the objectives Canada is setting for itself in terms of immigration, the number of new immigrants.
We know that the government has just reached, for the first time in many years, its immigration objectives for Canada.
Quebec too has its objectives, it must be pointed out, which go far beyond the thirty thousand or so immigrants it would like to take in. Often, the slow pace of the process blocks claims currently being made abroad.
I am thinking, among others, of immigration and the embassy in Paris, where Quebec would like to attract francophone immigrants. Unfortunately, Quebec cannot achieve its objectives because of the substantial amount of time involved in the administrative process.
I come back to what I was saying before. The first point concerns the matter of population movement. The movement of people in search of a land of refuge has been a striking phenomenon of the 20th century, which, far from improving, has increased in recent years, through an increase in situations of organized violence, of violations of human rights, of wars and of conflicts on the international scene.
In 1996 the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were 26 million refugees in the world and 30 million displaced persons. Because western countries will take them in only in very small numbers, the great majority of refugees head for the poorest nations, those close to their own.
Nevertheless the governments of these nations are beginning to feel that the demand exceeds what they can offer. Many have adopted very restrictive deterrence measures which have shifted the demand to other countries.
Today Canada is one of the rare western countries to which those in danger may still try to apply for asylum under the Geneva convention.
The Geneva convention confirms the right of an individual to request asylum in a third country, but does not oblige the country to which application has been made to grant the request, in accordance with the rights and privileges of nations, whence the common notion that asylum is not a right but a privilege.
However, the welcome reserved for those seeking asylum is becoming increasingly limited, as can be seen from policies and procedures with respect to entry, application for refugee status and permanent residence, and from the policies regarding the support programs and services for which they are eligible.
The 1980s saw an increase in the number of people requesting asylum in Canada. The average since 1989 has jumped from 25,000 to 30,000 a year, one third of whom have settled in Quebec.
While they only represent a small proportion of the world total, these people in distress, who are largely from southern countries and therefore more visible than those who came in previous decades, because of their unfamiliar cultural and linguistic profiles, did disturb government authorities and the public in general.
That is when we politicians, the media and the public, in Quebec and throughout Canada, began using expressions such as phony refugees, abusers of the system and cheaters. Ten years later, these expressions are now commonly used but are not enough to move public opinion. This is why the government must now also protect the public against terrorists and criminals.
This is one of the new arguments used by Canada to justify the implementation of increasingly harsher policies against people seeking refuge here. The major argument used remains the economic weight of these asylum seekers.
While recognized throughout the world for its humanitarian traditions, Canada quickly developed, in the eighties, a tendency to restrict its open door policy for these people.
Today those who apply for refugee status from abroad or in Canada must overcome numerous obstacles before being allowed to settle here. The federal government has put in place measures to intercept, in transit areas abroad such as airports, people who have fled their country without first obtaining the documents required by Canada.
Yet those who flee their country often do not have access to these documents, either because they would risk their lives if they tried to get them from the authorities that deliver these documents, or because there is no place where they can get these documents given the country's political instability or state of war.
When they finally make it to Canada, the people are faced with a cumbersome and very slow legal process that can have a severe anxiogenic effect on them. First, the refugee status claim process is complicated and also costly since the claimant needs legal counsel to prepare and present his or her claim before the Immigration and Refugee Board. Then, the operations of the board need to be taken into consideration, including the way the hearings are carried out, the attitude of the commissioners and the nature of the arguments presented if a claim is rejected. Also, when a claim is turned down, no appeal on the merits can be made, the claimant can be sent back to his country of origin even if his life is in jeopardy because his country is at war or is guilty of massive violations of human rights.
It is important to note that Canada no longer deports claimants to Burundi as of June 1993 and to Afghanistan and Rwanda as of April 1994. Following many representations by the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Table de concertation des organismes de Montréal, Canada stopped deporting claimants to Algeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. However, Canada has found a way around its commitment by sending back to the U.S. claimants who have come here through the United States, who have no qualms about deporting them to their countries of origin.
Even when claimants are granted refugee status, after being either selected overseas or recognized by the Immigration and Refugee Board, policies concerning permanent residency applications and family reunification can become a major disincentive to settle in Canada.
In short, precisely when asylum seekers are most in need of services they are not entitled to them. During the crucial period when they begin to adapt to their new environment and build their own perception of this new society, they are denied the right to be supported.
When they are destabilized the most, and when the risk of experiencing mental and physical health problems is the highest, they would be completely shut out, were it not for the human and social conscience of non governmental organizations working for the recognition of their rights. This is another issue I dealt with when Bill C-31 was debated.
I raised another issue in committee, and I remember asking a number of questions to the government, the officials and the minister. It had to do with the detention of minors and children.
Canada has signed the international convention on the rights of the child, which prohibits the detention of children in a number of situations. I asked the government to recognize this protection in a clause of the bill, and not in regulations, like it intended to do. I am forced to recognize that this will not necessarily be done this time around either.
I will point out that this bill, and this is important, must in this respect correspond to a number of articles and not simply lead us back to a number of regulations.
What is basic is to have this bill correspond to the convention, and more specifically to article 37( b ) of the convention on the rights of the child, which provides that States Parties shall ensure that:
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 other aspect of the convention is article 22, which provides:
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—
We want this protection enshrined in the law. Naturally we will have work to do in committee, and I am sure my colleague will see that these guarantees are clearly written into the law so that Canada may be consistent with the convention it signed.
The other aspect is the whole issue of the Immigration and Refugee Board. This bill and the minister's statements clearly show a willingness to improve the claim review process by the board.
We are totally open to this willingness to improve. Looking at the current situation, it is clear that the system is not working. We do not have to watch our words because it is clear. All those of us who have had to deal with refugee claimants in our ridings know that the system is not working.
In the Montreal office of the Immigration and Refugee Board, the average time for processing claims is estimated at ten months. People have to wait an average of ten months to have their claims processed. This means that, while these people wait, terrible human tragedies unfold. The other aspect is the whole issue of claimants. Their number exceeded 7,000 in the Montreal office at the end of 1999.
Overall, we are open to this bill. We hope the willingness shown by the government will lead to positive results in the application of the act. We will certainly work to improve this bill in committee.