moved that Bill C-11, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Federal Courts Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to rise here today to speak to Bill C-11, the balanced refugee reform act.
This bill and related reforms would reinforce Canada's humanitarian tradition as a place of refuge for victims of persecution and torture, while improving our asylum system to ensure that it is balanced, fast and fair. The bill would ensure faster protection of bona fide refugees, reinforce procedural fairness by implementing a robust refugee appeals division at the IRB and ensure faster removal of those who seek to abuse Canada's generosity by making asylum claims.
Canada has always been a place of refuge for victims of persecution, warfare and oppression. English Canada was founded by refugees fleeing the American revolution, the United Empire Loyalists. Canada was the north star of the underground railroad for escaped slaves from the southern United States.
In 1956, Canada welcomed some 40,000 refugees of Soviet communism fleeing the invasion of Budapest. In 1979 and 1980, Canadian churches and families welcomed some 50,000 Vietnamese or Indochinese boat people, creating the magnificent foundations of our privately sponsored refugee program.
Having said that, there have been moments when we turned our backs on those most urgently in need of our help. We think, of course, of the example of the European Jewish refugees during the second world war who Canada refused to accept, detailed in the great historical work None is Too Many written by Harold Troper and Irving Abella.
We must learn from the mistakes of that period so that we never repeat them. I believe we have learned from those mistakes, because Canada has welcomed some one million refugees to make a new start here in Canada in security and with our protection since the second world war.
There remain an estimated 10.5 million refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, around the world. Every year, some 20 developed democracies resettle about 100,000 refugees, and from that number Canada annually resettles between 10,000 and 12,000 or 1 out of every 10 refugees resettled globally, second only to the United States with 10 times our population.
The government is also active with our international partners to help those in need. Take, for example, the government's commitment to resettle up to 5,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepal over several years. We have already welcomed more than 850 Bhutanese refugees in several communities across Canada. In addition, we have also completed the resettlement of more than 3,900 Karens from Thailand.
I was very proud last year to announce a special program to welcome to Canada over the course of three years some 12,000 refugees from the conflict in Iraq. I visited some of these families in Damascus, Syria, last May and I must say I still remain touched and deeply moved after hearing their stories of violence and persecution, often on religious grounds.
Everywhere I go across the country, I encourage community groups, church groups, faith groups and others to participate in our privately-sponsored refugee program to help rescue those Iraqi refugees and other people in need of our support around the world.
In addition to all those things, we have increased our support for the UNHCR in its important work to help displaced populations on the ground. In fact, to quote Abraham Abraham, the UNHCR representative to Canada, “Canada, a major settlement country and a major donor to UNHCR activities worldwide, has for the time in its funding of UNHCR's global operations worldwide reached a new level of over $51 million, making this the highest ever annual Canadian grant to the UN refugee agency”.
I am proud that happened under this government.
In spite of our many achievements, I believe that in the context of balanced reform to our refugee system, Canada can and should do more to help those in need of our protection. That is why, as part of this broader package of reform to our refugee systems, including our asylum system, I have announced our intention to increase the number of resettled refugees welcomed to Canada by 2,500 individuals, to 14,000. We would continue to lead the world and set an example for other countries.
I propose, in the context of refugee reform, that we increase by some 20% or $9 million the refugee assistance program to provide initial assistance for the successful integration of government-assisted refugees typically coming from UN camps. I have also announced, as part of these increases and targets, an increase of some 2,000 positions for people to come through the very effective, privately sponsored refugee program.
Bizarrely, these huge increases in Canada's generosity that I announced were criticized by one individual claiming to speak on behalf of refugee organizations, demonstrating that there are some in this debate who are neither objective nor balanced in their approach. However, I must say that I was gratified to see the overwhelmingly positive response from those who actually work with refugees, not just issue press releases but actually do the practical work with people who need a new start.
For example, Mr. Abraham of the UNHCR said, “This is an encouraging move in the right direction that yet again demonstrates the humanitarian commitment of Canada to provide protection to needy refugees for whom resettlement is the only solution enabling them to rebuild their shattered lives with respect and dignity”.
Mr. Tsehai of Canadian Lutheran World Relief expressed his “sincere appreciation and deep gratitude for your announcement to increase the PSR target to a 6,500 annual level”.
A coalition of sponsorship agreement holders, groups that bring the refugees to Canada, said they were “thrilled with the news”.
There can be no doubt that this government is committed to continuing Canada's proud humanitarian tradition of protecting those in need, but let me turn my attention to the asylum system.
We also have, as all members will know, a very robust, highly regarded and extraordinarily fair charter-compliant legal system for the consideration of asylum claims made by refugee claimants arriving in Canada. Unfortunately the system has many serious, longstanding problems and everyone knows it.
I would like to credit the member for Vaughan, the official opposition immigration critic, for having raised this issue as early as 18 months ago and doing so in a non-partisan fashion. I would also like to commend the Leader of the Opposition for having pointed to the problems in our asylum system, which must be addressed.
One of the problems is that we have had long, very large backlogs in asylum claims as a permanent feature of the system. The average size of the asylum backlog in our system over the past 10 or 15 years has been 40,000 people waiting for a hearing on their applications for asylum protection in Canada. That means that, typically, people have been waiting about a year to get even a hearing. Right now the backlog is as high as 60,000 people waiting for a decision or a hearing on their applications, meaning that people have to wait 19 months for a hearing. This is not acceptable. We must do better.
If someone manages to escape one of Ahmadinejad's prisons in Iran and he arrives at one of our airports with the scars of torture fresh on his back, we do not offer him a quick pathway to security and protection in Canada. We give him a form and say we will check back with him in 19 months.
That is not good enough. Frankly, those who defend the status quo, who say that these permanent, huge backlogs and the large number of false claims, which contribute enormously to those backlogs, are acceptable, have taken the wrong position with respect to our moral obligation to provide speedy protection to those in need of it.
The truth is this. Too many people try to use our asylum system as a back door to gain entry into Canada, rather than wait patiently to come here through the immigration process. The result is that too many people abuse our system in an effort to jump the immigration queue. There are a number of problems with the current system, which encourage unfounded claims.
How do I make this assessment that there are many unfounded claims? In the last two years, we have seen that some 58% of the claims for asylum made in Canada were subsequently deemed to be unfounded or not in need of our protection. Many of those claims are actually withdrawn by the claimants. I will give one example.
I suspect if we went to any of our constituencies and asked people what they think is the most likely source of refugee claims in Canada, they might say Iran, North Korea, Somalia or Iraq. In point of fact, it is an EU democracy, Hungary. Last year, there were 2,500 claims. Subsequently, 97% of claimants from that European democracy went on to withdraw or abandon their own claims, indicating to us that they do not need our protection. Why they came and went through the asylum system is a good question. A clue may be found in a criminal investigation into allegations of human trafficking involving many of these claimants who are being victimized, allegedly, by a human trafficking ring.
However, of the 2,500 claims made from that EU democracy, only 3 claims were found to be in need of our protection. Therefore, with six out of ten claims being made, which were subsequently found not to be in need of Canada's protection, and with Canada receiving one of the highest levels of asylum claims in the world with a 60% increase in the number of claims filed between 2006 and 2008, all of this to me indicates that Canada has become, regrettably, a country of choice for those who seek to migrate, not through the normal legal system, but by inventing claims often facilitated by unscrupulous agents and third parties in the immigration industry.
These problems are serious. Even the Auditor General has pointed to the backlogs creating this pull factor for false claims. What we seek to do in these reforms is to create and reinforce balance that respects our obligation to provide due process that is compliant with the charter and with the United Nations conventions on torture and refugees to asylum claimants, balance that does not restrict access to the asylum system for those who believe they have a need for our protection but balance that will provide faster protection decisions for legitimate refugees while providing faster removals for the many who actually come here seeking to abuse Canada's generosity.
How do we propose to do that? First, there would be an initial information gathering interview that would provide earlier contact with an officer from the IRB than claimants now have. Although these officers would not decide on claims, they would be able to identify claims that appear well founded and could recommend expedited processing for them. What this means for people who have managed to escape persecution is that they would not have to wait a year and a half for protection but could receive it in a matter of weeks.
I understand that some claimants may be too traumatized to explain what prompted their claim. That is why during an interview if the officer determines that a claimant is in this situation, he or she could have the discretion to postpone the interview until the claimant could receive the appropriate guidance and support.
The information that officers would gather, coupled with solid facts about the nature of their claim, would lead to hearings at the refugee protection division, staffed by a highly trained, independent public servant, within 60 days. In cases where there is a good reason for delay, there would be that flexibility, but an information gathering interview within eight days and a hearing at the IRB within sixty days would be the norm.
The proposed new system would also include, and this is very important, a full appeal for most claimants. Unlike the appeal process proposed in the past and the one dormant in our current legislation, this refugee appeal division, or RAD, would allow for the introduction of new evidence and, in certain circumstances, provide for an oral hearing.
By the way, that is responding to a demand from some of the opposition parties for a very long time. I should point out that when the Liberal government was in office, three subsequent immigration ministers and the government took the position that they could not implement the RAD until there was a streamlining of the overall asylum system. We are now providing that streamlining. It is time to say yes to the appeal division in the context of a more efficient but still fair system.
I will now turn my attention to one of the more contentious aspects of the legislation, which would be to allow for the designation of certain countries as being safe. The nationals from those countries, under these reforms, would still, and I emphasize still, have the same access they currently do to our asylum system. They would still have access to an appeal by our independent judiciary at the Federal Court. They would still have access to a fully charter compliant process that actually exceeds our international obligations but the consideration of those unfounded claims from designated safe countries would move somewhat more expeditiously, reducing the process by about four months by not allowing them to make two appeals, the first one being to the refugee appeal division.
Someone said that this is unfair or inappropriate. No less authority than the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said here in Ottawa on March 24, “there are indeed safe countries of origin. There are indeed countries in which there is a presumption that refugee claims will probably be not as strong as in other countries”.
He went on to say that we could not deny access to the initial hearing, which we do not in our proposed reforms, and that it was important to have a fair and transparent process for designating these countries, as do most western European asylum systems whose example we are emulating in these reforms.
I wan to be absolutely clear that the proposition is not to create a comprehensive list of all countries designated as safe or unsafe. To the contrary. The criteria would be the following. A country would need to be designated as safe. We propose that this designation process would be in the hands of a panel of senior public servants who would make consultations with UNHCR and would refer to independent human rights supports by NGOs. The criteria would be: if a country is a principal source of asylum claims to Canada, the overwhelming majority of which are unfounded; and if such a country is a signatory to and in compliance with international human rights instruments, which has a strong human rights record and which offers state protection to its citizens, including vulnerable individuals.
Why do we need this? The reason is that periodically we see huge spikes in unfounded claims from democratic countries. Twenty-five years ago it was Portugal, not under a dictatorship, but a social democratic government. Thousands of claims were received and almost all of them were found to be false. What did Canada do? It imposed a visa.
In 2000, it was Chile, not under Pinochet, but a social democratic government, the most stable and prosperous democracy in South America. We received thousands of claims and almost all of them were found not to be in need of Canada's protection. How did we respond? We imposed a visa on Chile. In 2003 and 2004, it was Costa Rica, the most stable and prosperous democracy in Central America. We received thousands of claims and almost all of them were found to be not in need of our protection. Canada imposed a visa. In 1997, it was Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Thousands of claims were received and almost all were unfounded. We imposed a visa. Now I mention the situation with respect to Hungary.
When we see these spikes, it is important to understand that these are not just happening spontaneously. We have solid reason to believe that behind these waves of unfounded claims from democratic countries, there are often networks encouraging, facilitating, advising people, commercial networks, the bottom feeders in the immigration industry or sometimes there is evidence of even criminal networks.
All we are saying is that we need a tool other than the imposition of visas to address those spikes in unfounded claims. I appreciate the support and agreement of the Leader of the Opposition in this respect. Last August, in Saint John, New Brunswick, he said, “I want a legitimate, lawful refugee system that to get to the openness point welcomes genuine refugees”. He then said, Look, there are a number of countries in the world in which we cannot accept a bona fide refugee claim because you do not have cause, you do not have just cause coming from those countries. It is rough and ready but otherwise we will have refugee fraud and nobody wants that, including bona fide refugees”.
The Leader of the Opposition may have gone a little bit too far in suggesting that we deny access to the asylum system to claimants from safe countries, but his general concept is entirely sensible and has been endorsed by virtually every newspaper in the country, for example, that has editorialized on this matter.
As I said, these reforms have been broadly endorsed. Eighty-four percent of Canadians say that the government should take steps to reform the refugee determination system,. Eighty-one percent of Canadians agree that refugee claims should be dealt with more quickly so that genuine refugees can settle in Canada faster and bogus claimants can be sent home more quick. By a margin of four to one, Canadians agree that more needs to be done to quickly remove from Canada people whose refugee claims are unfounded and rejected.
The Toronto Star has said, “the government deserves credit for showing the political will to act on an issue ducked by many of our predecessors”. The Globe and Mail says, “Canada has a crying need for a revamped refugee determination system”. The Montreal Gazette says, ”these reforms are a solid and a sensible attempt to reform the system”. Peter Schowler, former IRB chairman and head of the refugee think-tank at the University of Ottawa says, “the Conservative government has managed to propose a system that is both fast and fair, striking a reasonable balance between the two”. The Canadian Lawyer Magazine says, ”the lawyers in the immigration field probably support these reforms”.
These are balanced, reasonable reforms that I believe all members in all parties can support. I will be open to reasonable amendments that achieve the objective of a fast and fair system when this bill gets to committee. I hope that on this urgent issue we will all put aside partisan politics to some degree to allow our humanitarian tradition to prevail so that we can improve and protect the important humanitarian tradition of providing protection to those in need of it.