Mr. Speaker, as the citizenship and immigration critic for the Bloc Quebecois, I am pleased to rise at second reading of Bill C-11, an act respecting immigration to Canada and the granting of refugee protection to persons who are displaced, persecuted or in danger.
This bill, introduced for first reading on February 21, is almost identical to Bill C-31, which was introduced in March 2000, in the previous parliament.
The current immigration act came into effect in 1976 and has been amended about thirty times since then. It is therefore important to undertake an indepth review of the legislation in order to meet the needs of immigrants and refugees in the 21st century.
In early February, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration tabled in the House of Commons her department's projections for the levels of immigration to Canada in 2001 and 2002.
A brief review of the figures for the last 20 years shows that 150,000 applications for immigration were approved in 1980. In the next five years, the number of landed immigrants dropped. In 1985, there were less than 100,000 immigrants. Starting in 1986, the number increased, until it reached an all time high in 1992, with well over 200,000 immigrants. In the following years, the number decreased to fewer than 175,000 people.
According to the department's estimates, Canada will receive 200,000 to 225,000 immigrants and refugees in 2001, nearly 18% of whom will settle in Quebec. For 2002, the estimates are increased by some 10,000.
Canada and Quebec are welcoming nations. The bill before us should be aimed at establishing a fair and equitable framework to meet the needs of newcomers as humanely as possible, whether they are immigrants or refugees, in accordance with international conventions and with the values that are important to both Canadians and Quebecers.
With free trade, with the break up of political structures, like in Eastern Europe for example, with serious conflicts raging in Asia, Africa and Europe and with the globalization of communications, more and more people will be tempted if not forced to embark on the adventure of trying to starting a new life in a new country.
This new legislation should open the door so they can contribute to the enrichment of the community of which they will become part. Their skills, their experience and their personal qualities are all essential to the development of both Canada and Quebec as nations.
The Bloc Quebecois supports the principle of the bill. However, we will have to look at this bill more closely in committee because certain aspects of it need to be changed.
As was the case with its predecessor, Bill C-31, the main thrust of Bill C-11 is harshness towards illegal immigrants. Indeed, a large part of the bill puts the emphasis on closing the door to illegal immigrants, strengthening the measures designed to fight fraud, false statements and abuse, prohibiting criminals and those who present a security risk from entering Canada, and imposing harsher penalties.
At first glance, this bill, as drafted, seems to suggest that Canada has been invaded by all kinds of criminals and that the door is too wide open.
The Bloc Quebecois does not share that view, which can only serve to reinforce prejudice against refugees and immigrants.
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.
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—and this is good news—to lighten the load on a system that does not allow Canada to achieve its annual objective of 300,000 newcomers.
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. Canada is a popular destination. So, there is a problem with delays and I am sure that many members of this House could provide examples in their own ridings.
Speeding up the refugee determination process is one of the most positive measures contained in this bill. Indeed, the minister has indicated that, from now on, it will take 72 hours instead of 3 months—this is nothing short of extraordinary—for a refugee claim to be filed with the Immigration and Refugee Board, which will have to bring down its decision within six to nine months.
The minister also pointed out that her bill would significantly streamline refugee claim processing in order to reduce the maximum time frame from five to two years.
New measures will also be put in place to modernize the procedure for selecting skilled immigrant workers and temporary workers. It must be said that these measures will never apply in Quebec, since under the Canada-Quebec agreement of 1991, Quebec selects its own economic immigrants.
Refugee selection and family reunification remain under federal jurisdiction. It is time, however, the law explicitly recognized Quebec's jurisdiction. In this regard, section 10 of the current law is very weak.
As a signatory to international human rights documents, Canada has obligations as well with respect to the rights of non citizens. The new bill must take the standards established in these texts into account. Unfortunately, and although it refers to them, the bill does not incorporate the relevant texts.
There are three international conventions. The first, the 1959 convention relating to the status of refugees, provides that the mandate of the high commissioner for refugees to protect refugees falls as well to the countries signing the convention, including Canada.
The basic instrument, indeed the cornerstone of the international refugee protection system, is respect for the principle of non return recognized by the countries and enshrined in article 33, which provides that “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”.
The bill currently before the House should also include sexual orientation, specifically, as grounds.
Subclause 97(1)( a ) of the bill refers to the convention against torture and provides for the protection of persons threatened with torture, as defined in article 1 of the convention. However, the bill does not fully respect article 3 of the convention, which prohibits the return of any individual to face torture. In fact, the present bill does not prohibit returning people deemed inadmissible for reasons of serious criminality and security.
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. Bill C-11 proposes that the best interest of the child be taken into account.
This bill provides for the automatic detention of any person entering Canada as part of an organized operation. The previous bill gave no special status to refugee status claimants who were minors. Under Bill C-11, a minor child shall be detained only as a measure of last resort.
I have many more quotes concerning the rights of children that I would love to read to the House, but since I have several pages left in my speech, I will not do it. However, I would be more than glad to provide them to any member interested.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently published a report on the Canadian refugee determination system. Bill C-11 before us today addresses two of the report's recommendations by linking the appeal on the merits for refugee status claimants to the pre-removal risk assessment part of the decision taken by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
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. The bill 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 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.
The Bloc criticized Bill C-31 because it did 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 contrary to the international rules governing the detention of young refugees, except in certain cases and for very short periods of time.
The minister seems to have heard the message since Bill C-11 provides for the detention of young refugees only as a last resort. However, the notion of “last resort” has yet to be defined.
In addition to illegal 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 threat 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.
The bill gives new powers to immigration officers to detain individuals at points of entry for purposes of “administrative expediency”. The officers may also detain people when they have reasonable grounds to suspect that they are inadmissible on grounds of security or on grounds of human rights violations. One might wonder whether this addition of new grounds for detention based on expediency and suspicion is not a cause for concern. It seems to us that the grounds of danger to the public and the risk of failure to appear already cover all the situations in which detention is necessary.
The bill also broadens the provisions with respect to detention on grounds of identity. Any requirement to provide proof of identity poses a serious obstacle for many refugees. In fact, these people are often forced to flee without their papers 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. With this 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, for instance, that refugee claimants could be detained if they do not establish their identity at the hearing to determine refugee status.
In Bill C-11, 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, 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 in their country of origin and, finally, whether the claimant is a member of a class of persons whose need for protection is recognized through regulations.
It should be noted that the exception clauses in the convention on refugees apply to refugees in the meaning of the convention, and to persons in need of protection. These exceptions are aimed at criminals, those who have committed serious common law crimes in another country and anyone convicted of actions contrary to the goals and principles of the United Nations.
The centralization of decision making within the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada will no doubt make for a more effective and rapid process.
Reference to the convention against torture is new and significant. We should note, however, that the definition of protected person contained in the bill is not absolutely consistent with the provisions of the convention against torture, which, unlike the convention on the status of refugees, contains no exclusion clause. Article 3 of the convention against torture prohibits the return of any person who may be subject to torture, regardless of what the person may have done in the past or may do in the future.
According to the bill and consistent with the situation currently, only claims for refugee status approved by citizenship and immigration may be heard. However, the bill provides that an examination of an applicant's criminal records potentially leading to an inadmissible claim will now be conducted on entry into the country and no longer at the end of the process, once the claimant has been given refugee status. The bill also expands the categories of persons whose claims are deemed unacceptable, which means they will not be referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada for a hearing.
At the moment, the claims are inadmissible only for reasons of criminality and if the minister issues a certificate of public danger. Now, claims will be considered inadmissible if the claimant has been found guilty in Canada of a crime punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of at least 10 years and for which a sentence of at least two years was imposed. A claimant will also be ruled ineligible if he 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.
It is important to point out that automatically excluding persons convicted of offences outside Canada poses a threat to refugees. Too often, the criminal justice 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.
Under the bill, applications for protection will be heard by the refugee protection division. Applicants will have a hearing before a single 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 new refugee appeal division by the applicant or the minister. This division will not hold a hearing, but will base its decision on written submissions. We also deplore that this 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 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 establish a transparent process 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.
The introduction of appeals on the merits addresses 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.
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.
The Bloc Quebecois regrets the harsh tone used by the government in presenting this bill and in the related public announcements. The government's approach seems designed to reassure the Canadian right and strengthen prejudice against refugees and immigrants. It is thus encouraging division and fanning the flames of xenophobia and racism in society.
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 tragedies 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 10 months. Moreover, at the end of December 1999, there were over 7,000 asylum seekers in Montreal alone who were waiting for a hearing. That is one third of all cases in Canada.
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 Quebec's former minister of public relations and immigration, Robert Perreault:
The act will have to include firm commitments in this regard. 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 immigrant workers or the maintaining of a distinct program for immigrant investors.
The bill will therefore have to contain a specific provision to this effect. 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 year, in 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, education and so forth.
I would remind members that, right now, it is costing Quebec over $100 million annually to look after people waiting for a ruling from the federal government's Immigration and Refugee Board.
In conclusion, the Bloc Quebecois is greatly concerned by the fact that many crucial points are relegated to the regulations rather than being part of the bill itself. This means that the government is basically excluding these rules from the scrutiny of the House. This also opens the door to many changes, at the whim of the government, or because of public pressure or discontent with a court decision.
At second reading stage, the Bloc is supporting the principle of this bill. However, a lot remains to be done. We sincerely hope that, instead of just rubberstamping the legislation, the Liberal government will consider improvements to it, at committee stage, in order to meet the needs of those who have chosen to settle here to build a better life for themselves.