Mr. Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to address the motion put forward by my colleague from Burnaby—Douglas. I would like to share a slightly different version of what could be called the same story.
Many in this House will remember the fall of Saigon in 1975 when over half a million Vietnamese refugees fled persecution. Over half a million refugees came out of that humanitarian crisis. Canada was very generous in accepting over 140,000 Vietnamese between the late 1970s and the early 1990s. In other words, we accepted almost a quarter of all the refugees of that period while the remaining Vietnamese settled in 70 other countries.
Canada has responded generously to refugees, but the situation in which the Vietnamese in the Philippines find themselves today is vastly different. The Vietnamese we are talking about today are not refugees and they are not in any danger. Statelessness does not make someone a refugee. A refugee is someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution and who continues to have a valid fear of persecution.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is aware of this population and has determined that they are not refugees, are not persecuted and do not need protection. I think that is an important point to make, that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is aware of this group in the Philippines; he has determined that they are not refugees, that they are not persecuted and that they do not need protection.
The choices and the prospects for this population make them quite different from the plight of true refugees. Those Vietnamese living in the Philippines have opportunities that no other refugee population enjoys. They do have access to education like the rest of the local population. There are no restrictions on their freedom of movement. They are not restricted to refugee camps. They are not refugees and they have never been considered to be refugees. Those who married Filipino nationals and their children from these marriages are eligible for residence and citizenship in the Philippines. Most of the Vietnamese population in the Philippines we are talking about maintain a standard of living similar to that of the Filipino population.
The Government of Canada is committed to providing a safe haven for victims of persecution for genuine refugees.
Refugees are the over 100,000 who have been registered in seven camps in eastern Nepal for over a decade now. Nearly a quarter of them are children born in the camps. Another 10,000 unregistered Bhutanese refugees are living outside the camps. These genuine refugees have been warehoused in camps for more than a decade. The monotony of camp life has amplified their depression, substance abuse, domestic and sexual violence, teenage pregnancies and crime.
Refugees like these face life where up to eight people share one hut. They receive basic food rations available for short term emergencies but inadequate for long term living. The only informal work they can find pays low wages, barely enough to supplement their diet or buy extra clothes. If they are lucky, they may be able to eke out something for education. They have no options of integrating into the local Nepalese community and no hope of returning to Bhutan.
Being stuck in these overcrowded refugee camps with little hope for any solution has taken its toll. Suicide in refugee camps is four times higher than the local Nepalese population.
Refugees are the Muslims from northern Rakhine State in Myanmar who have been in limbo for the past 14 years. Some 28,000 of these refugees, known as Rohingyas, are stuck in two temporary camps in Bangladesh, which were set up in the first place to respond to the emergency back in 1992. The government of Bangladesh will not improve these facilities or allow construction of semi-permanent structures.
Médecins Sans Frontières-Holland and Concern have left these camps and the absence of NGOs has made conditions worse. The protection and security in these camps have steadily deteriorated. Refugees are not allowed to hold meetings among themselves or voice their fears. Corruption is rampant.
Staff from Citizenship and Immigration Canada recently visited the camps and confirmed UNHCR reports that these genuine refugees suffer from malnutrition and poor water and sanitary systems. They are not allowed to leave the camps. They are not allowed to work and they lack education.
Bribery, corruption and sexual violence are common. We hear reports of trafficking of women and children. Refugees are intimidated and occasionally pressured to go home. When they refuse, they are arrested and beaten at random.
Refugees are the Muslim population that has been in limbo for over 15 years in Malaysia. Their children are denied access to public education. Underage marriages are common. Girls are married off to collect a dowry that would reduce the financial burden on families.
Refugees are also the 140,000 Karens in Thailand who face restrictions on education, employment and the right to move out of the camps. Canadian government staff have worked in this camp and have seen the effects of the rampant violence and human rights abuses. We are talking about the rape of young children, the recruitment of child soldiers and the murder of refugees by other refugees.
Refugees are also the 10,000 Eritreans in the Ethiopian Shimelba camp, a camp our immigration officers visit on a regular basis doing resettlement work. Women in this camp routinely face sexual harassment and assault from other ethnic groups.
Refugees are also the 200,000 people in two different camps in Kenya, one in the northern desert on the edge of the Sudan and the other in eastern Kenya where recent floods have forced the evacuation of refugees.
The camp in Dadaab is a warehouse of mostly Somali refugees. In Kakuma, where the average summer temperature is plus 40, the Sudanese have been stuck in camps for over 15 years, and it is home to many thousands of Ethiopians, Congolese, Rwandans and others.
Today's motion calls the Vietnamese community in the Philippines refugees. In the face of true refugees and what they suffer, the government cannot support the motion. Canadians want a refugee system that is humanitarian and there for those desperately in need. This motion does not deliver.
Canadians would be proud to see the compassion that citizenship and immigration officials bring to their work with refugees overseas. Canadians are proud of their government's efforts to maintain our legacy of resettling genuine refugee populations here in Canada.
What would Canadians say about a motion that would delay our vital work with the Rohingyas, the Chin, the Karens, the Sudanese, the Ethiopians and the Congolese, all genuine refugees for whom Canada and Canadians are working to help, to help the Vietnamese population in the Philippines emigrate? This motion would have us take resources away from assisting these refugees in order to benefit a community that enjoys choices, education and has hope beyond theirs.
Canada is a compassionate country. In June we announced we were welcoming a group of 810 refugees predominantly of the Karen ethnic group. Since then they have been arriving and settling in towns and cities across Canada from Vancouver to Charlottetown.
The Vietnamese community living in the Philippines simply does not meet any Canadian refugee definition as described in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. In fact, the UNHCR has repeatedly advised the governments of Canada and other countries that the Vietnamese community is quite well settled in the Philippines. They are not seriously or personally affected by civil war. They are not suffering gross violations of human rights. While they might not have legal status, they do not face deportation. They have been locally integrated through marriage to local nationals, through employment and through long term residence. We do not consider these individuals to be in need of protection as refugees.
Furthermore, the Government of Canada does not recognize the Philippines as a nation from which people need to seek refuge. There is no compelling reason that Canada should treat this request differently from other requests for special consideration.
When it comes to refugee determination, I would remind all hon. members that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has repeatedly praised the integrity of Canada's refugee determination system, calling it the best in the world.
The Government of Canada is proud of its record. It will not relax standards for refugee determination based on claims that have more to do with economic aspirations than with the claim of legitimate protection.
This is a difficult issue. I am a member of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. I was at that meeting in May when we met the representatives of this group.
As someone who is relatively new to this file both to issues surrounding immigration and refugees, I can say that it tugs at the heart of anyone who listens to people who would like to move from one place in the world to another place where they can forge a better life for themselves. I think one of the important distinctions that I needed to make very clear in my mind when I started with the committee was the distinction between what is a refugee and what is an immigrant.
Many of us in this House, and in fact many Canadians, do not have to go too far back in their own family trees to find people who came to Canada from other countries to try to make a better life for themselves and their children. My family for the most part came from the British Isles, but even in this House there are people who can trace their ancestry back to countries all over the world.
There is nothing wrong with being an immigrant. There is nothing wrong with trying to go to a country where people can make a better life for themselves. There is nothing wrong with being an immigrant. Immigrants want to go somewhere where they can make a better life for themselves.
Refugees are quite a different category. Refugees are people who must flee the country where they live because they fear death or persecution. It is very unfortunate that in the world today there are so many people who cannot stay in their homeland, who are forced to leave and who know that they cannot return because they would likely be killed if they returned or certainly they would be tortured if they went back to those places.
I think the distinction between a refugee, who is someone who has left his or her country because he or she must, and an immigrant, who is someone who would like to leave his or her country to seek a better opportunity, is important.
A few moments ago I made it quite clear that according to any generally accepted definition of refugee, the population we are talking about today does not meet that standard. They are not refugees. That does not mean that everything is great in their lives, that there are no problems and there are not things they would like to address. That does not mean they would not like to move to a country like Canada. I expect that around the world there are literally millions of people who, if given the choice, would enjoy coming to live in a country like Canada.
As we often hear in this place, those of us who get to serve in Parliament are very aware of the good fortune we have to be Canadians and to be in Canada. The standard of living we enjoy, the democracy, the freedoms we enjoy are things that people all over the world would love to have for themselves and their families.
I certainly bear no issue with this group of Vietnamese in the Philippines who would like to go to another country, who would like to come to Canada, the United States or somewhere else. That is perfectly understandable. When we heard the group before the committee, as I said, the stories they told were very compelling in terms of why they would like to leave the Philippines. However, there are compelling stories and there are horrifying stories.
Another thing that I have learned in my time in the committee is the truly unbelievable circumstances that some people find themselves in around the world. In my speech I referenced three or four places where people live in truly horrible conditions. They have no options. They cannot even leave the camps and many of them have been in those places for 10 or more years. That is something I think most Canadians could not even imagine for themselves.
I am proud to be a citizen of a country and I am proud to be a member of Parliament in a country where we are trying to do something about that. Canada has done an exemplary job over the years in terms of helping those who need help, in terms of bringing refugees into Canada and resettling them.
The some 140,000 who came to Canada at the time of the Vietnam war are proof of that. As a boy growing up in a small town in central Ontario, which was very rural and not very diverse, I can still remember when the Vietnamese people showed up in town. I was probably 10 years old at the time. Churches in our community had sponsored Vietnamese refugees and they came and made their home in Haliburton. I remember that because it was probably my first exposure to the role Canada plays in terms of placing refugees in Canada and taking our share of the load.
As I said before, I think the United Nations recognizes the role that Canada plays around the world in terms of refugees. More broadly in terms of immigration, Canada is seen as a world leader. Other countries actually look at what we do. Other countries come to Canada to learn about the way we deal with these different groups of people including refugees.
It is a fair case to make that Canada has been there when refugees are in need, that Canada has done more than its fair share over the years and continues to do more than its fair share. When we are talking about refugees, I think Canada will be there in the future to make sure that as many of these people as possible can be resettled somewhere so they will have a future for themselves.
It is equally important that we draw the distinction clearly in terms of what is a refugee. A compelling case does not a refugee make.
There has been much evidence presented in different places that these people that we are discussing today do not meet the criteria of what are refugees. My colleague from Burnaby—Douglas pointed out that there may be other mechanisms available to the minister.
Canada accepted 36,000 refugees last year. We are active on that file. Over the past few years Canada did make an exception for this group. The government tried to work the immigration criteria to figure out a way to give more of these people a way to get out of their situation. In fact, 23 people from that group did come to Canada.
It is fair to say that Canada has not only met its obligations but has gone beyond its obligations in terms of refugees. I think we have tried under our immigration laws to figure out a way to make that process accessible to as many as possible.
That is why the position of the government today is that these Vietnamese people in the Philippines do not meet the refugee standard. On that basis they cannot be admitted to Canada as refugees.
I think that is the right decision, as difficult as it is. I look forward to the government continuing to work with genuine refugees around the world to ensure that we give as many of them as possible an opportunity to start a new life in Canada.