I appreciate the minister's applause. He did speak about that in his remarks as well. However, there have been failures of our immigration refugee policy that left people unprotected. One of the most egregious of those cases was the Jewish refugees who came to Canada during World War II and were not welcomed and were turned away. There were also the people on board the Komagata Maru who arrived in Vancouver at the turn of the last century and were returned to India.
Our failure to welcome refugees has had terrible consequences as well for those individuals. When we turn away someone whose life is in danger, the possibilities are not very positive, to say the least.
However, Canada overall has been known as a country that welcomes refugees and does it in a way that most other countries do not, which is something that is very significant. We were recognized by the United Nations for our efforts in refugee resettlement in 1986 with the Nansen medal. Canada is the only country to have been recognized in this way. Other individuals and agencies have been recognized but Canada remains the only country to have received the Nansen medal.
One of the successes of Canada's refugee policy has been the fact that there has been a significant grassroots and community involvement in refugee resettlement. We have seen that in most of our communities. There are individuals who participated in the resettlement of a refugee and worked with a family, for instance. Many agencies and community organizations work on these issues. Many of them are related to the private sponsorship program, which has been an inspired part of Canada's refugee legislation, where groups of Canadians can get together and participate directly in helping the resettlement of refugees and refugee families in Canada. That was a brilliant policy decision and continues to be a backbone of our refugee policy.
Canadian churches have been very active in sponsoring and resettling refugees in Canada and they remain one of the key players in our refugee policy.
All of this has led to the fact that there is considerable ownership of our refugee policy at a grassroots level in Canada. Because so many Canadians have been directly involved in the refugee process, they believe they have an important interest in the policies and in legislation of the kind we are debating today.
Canadians recognize that the job is not done and far from it. Millions of people still languish in refugee camps near trouble spots around the world. That number is not reducing in a significant way and continues to be very troubling. The conditions in those refugee camps are also very difficult.
Far too many people are still persecuted, even to death, for their political views or for their race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity around the world. Steadily, in many ways, we have been making it harder for those people to escape their own country and find a safe haven here in Canada.
We did things like the safe third country agreement with the United States that said that if a refugee came through the United States before making a claim in Canada they could be returned to the United States. I think that was abandoning Canada's responsibility to those people when Canada's policy was different from that of the United States when it came to offering people protection.
We introduced things like documentation requirements before people board airlines to fly to Canada ensuring they had documentation when often many refugees and people who are escaping persecution do not have the required documents.
In recent years, our refugee determination system has been a mess, frankly, because we have used it as a political football. We have seen many political considerations given, political appointments in terms of people who were sitting on the IRB, and other ways that we have played games with our refugee system at the cost of protecting people. That has resulted in huge backlogs in our refugee determination process.
Our previous governments, both Liberal and Conservative, have allowed this backlog to grow. At the end of the last Liberal government, the Liberals had taken some important steps to improve the situation. They had made progress with regard to the backlog and the Immigration and Refugee Board, the IRB, was at a point where it was almost caught up in a sense when the Conservatives came to power in 2006. There was still a backlog but there will always be a backlog situation in any of these agencies. However, the IRB was to the point of believing that the backlog was manageable and one that would not have produced many serious delays at that point.
Unfortunately, when the Conservatives came to power I think they played politics with the IRB. They refused to reappoint board members who had been appointed by the Liberals and they also refused to appoint new board members. The result was that the backlog ballooned back to where it had been in earlier years. As a result of that backlog, the unfairness also grew. We lost many experienced people from the IRB in that period. The IRB lost that experience, that ability to do an effective and fair job.
The Auditor General even became involved when she warned that the system was collapsing under the huge backlog. This is another situation where the IRB and refugee process as a political football came back into play. I believe the crisis today was created by the Conservatives, by the current government, and now they are creating a solution to the problem that they created. It is a bit of a revolving door and one that continues to concern me.
Conservative and Liberal governments have also shown great disrespect to the existing immigration and refugee law, and that is primarily for their refusal to implement the refugee appeal division which is a feature of the current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This act was brought in and debated in 2001, given royal assent in 2002 and contains a provision for a refugee appeal division, something that the minister described as “dormant”. Well the reality was that the Liberals and Conservatives refused to implement that part of the law that had been debated and passed here in the House of Commons and in the Senate. It was never implemented. I think the refugee appeal division would have brought a measure of fairness to our refugee determination system.
The refugee appeal division, RAD, came about through negotiation when the government of the day wanted to move from two member boards at refugee hearings to one member boards. The compromise to ensure fairness was the refugee appeal division. It was not an expensive proposition. It would have cost $8 million to $10 million to establish and $2 million a year to run, not a significant sum in terms of our overall expenditure in the refugee program, but it would have added a measure of fairness to that process.
There was a distinct lack of respect for the process in the past and I wonder if the current legislation before us has a provision for a refugee appeal division, but I do not know. My expectation of fairness of actually seeing that implemented, I have to say, I am a little cynical given our experience with the existing RAD and the fact that it was never implemented.
The NDP has always called for an effective, fair and streamlined refugee process and we have said that there are some principles that need to be the foundation of our refugee determination process. We believe that each case should be assessed on its individual merit. We believe in the need to invest in high quality initial decisions and that we need to get it right the first time. It needs to be a non-political process and the decisions need to be made by an independent body. It needs to be a simple system that avoids unnecessary rules. The necessary resources to ensure that the system functions appropriately need to be in place so that backlogs can be avoided. We also need to remember at all times that human lives are at stake and that we need to uphold human rights standards throughout this important process.
New Democrats have long proposed some specific measures for a fast and fair refugee process. These include that all appointments of IRB board members should be done by an independent appointment commissioner with set criteria for expertise in refugee matters. Such a merit-based appointments process was championed by our former leader, Ed Broadbent. We believe that there needs to be a crackdown on unscrupulous immigration consultants by banning them from the Immigration and Refugee Board hearing room and providing legal aid for proper representation. A provision for appropriate legal representation for refugee claimants continues to be a real issue in our refugee determination system.
We believe that we need to hire more permanent refugee protection officers to clear the backlog. We have seen this done in the past with some success. We also believe that we need to set up the refugee appeal division so that consistent decisions can be made based on fact and law. Parliament mandated, as I mentioned, this refugee appeal division in 2001 but the Liberals and Conservatives chose to ignore the law and not put it in place.
Bill C-11 has some serious flaws. Some of the key organizations that have an interest in the refugee process have outlined some of the problems.
Whenever I look for information on our refugee process, I look to the work of the Canadian Council for Refugees, which is an umbrella organization of many Canadian refugee serving organizations. It has delineated its concerns with this legislation, which I believe merit close attention. One of its key concerns is the designated countries of origin list. This bill would empower the minister to designate countries whose nationals would not have access to the refugee appeal process. This is the so-called safe countries of origin list. The council points out that the word safe does not appear anywhere in Bill C-11, which seems somewhat problematic given the intent of this legislation.
The council also believes that this is an unfair proposal because treating claimants differently based on country of origin is discriminatory. It believes that each case must be assessed individually. It believes that some claimants will be particularly hurt, including women who are making gender-based claims and persons claiming on the basis of sexual orientation. In many countries that are otherwise considered peaceful or safe, there can be serious problems of persecution on these grounds.
Claimants from designated countries will face a bias against them even at the first level since decision-makers will be aware of the government's judgment on that country. There will be an overall presumption of safety in certain countries that will affect the process.
Some claims from countries that are generally seen not to be refugee producing are among those that most need appeal due to the difficult issues of fact and law, such as the availability of state protection. The denial of fair process to these claimants may lead to their forced return to persecution, a violation of human rights law.
The Canadian Council for Refugees says there are other concerns as well about designated countries of origin. It says:
Having a list of “safe countries of origin” politicizes the refugee system. There will be new diplomatic pressures from countries unhappy about not being considered “safe”.
As currently drafted, the amendment would give the minister a blank cheque to designate any country, part of a country or groups within a country without reference to the principles of refugee protection. Those are serious issues that have been raised by the Canadian Council for Refugees.
The council goes on to note that it has problems with the eight day interview and hearing process after 60 days. The government has proposed that claimants be interviewed by the Immigration and Refugee Board after eight days and that their hearing take place 60 days later. The council believes that eight days after arrival is too soon for a formal interview. The interview is used to take the claimant's detailed statement about his or her claim. It would be unfair to the most vulnerable claimants, such as those traumatized by experiences of torture or women unaccustomed to speaking to authority figures.
Some claimants are ready for a hearing after 60 days, but others are not, including refugees who need to build trust in order to be able to testify freely, such as persons who have experienced sexual assault. Other refugees need more than 60 days to gather relevant documentation to support their claim, especially those whose claim relates to a newly emerging pattern of persecution or those who are in detention.
Again, there are very serious concerns about holding hearings before claimants are ready to deal with that important part of the process.
The Canadian Council for Refugees also raises concerns about decision makers and who is making the decisions in this process. It notes that first-instance decision makers would be civil servants rather than cabinet appointees. Members of the refugee appeal division would be appointed by the cabinet.
It says that this does perhaps go in some way to dealing with problematic political appointments, but it also raises some concerns, noting that assigning refugee determination to civil servants is fundamentally problematic because they lack the necessary independence
It also notes that limiting appointments to civil servants will exclude some of the most highly qualified potential decisions makers, from a diverse range of backgrounds such as academia, human rights and social service. It believes that will affect the quality of decisions.
The question of appointments to the RAD remains unresolved. Under the bill they would be political appointments, which will affect the quality of decision making.
The CCR notes problems with the appeal and pre-removal risk assessment. It notes that the pre-removal risk assessment still exists but that it is an ineffective and inefficient system. Also it believes that, for some claimants, this will continue to be an issue because of its inefficiency requiring a whole second structure to do the same work as the immigration and refugee board, something that is not fully addressed in the bill.
The Canadian Council for Refugees is also concerned for the humanitarian and compassionate consideration provisions of the bill. The bill would bar refugee claimants from applying for humanitarian and compassionate consideration while their claim is in process and for 12 months afterwards.
Applicants for H and C consideration would also be barred from raising factors related to risks here and in the country of origin. The CCR believes that H and C consideration is necessary as a recourse to consider human rights issues including the best interests of children and potential risk to persons. Closing off this recourse may be contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Those are some of the concerns raised by the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Amnesty International, another well-respected organization that has a key interest in refugee policies, also has very serious concerns about the safe country of origin list. It says that such lists constitute discrimination among refugees that is strictly prohibited by article 3 of the refugee convention. Article 3 of the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is about non-discrimination. It states:
The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.
Amnesty International also notes in a statement on this new legislation:
...over the course of nearly fifty years of human rights research around the world we have consistently highlighted it is not possible to definitively characterize countries as safe or unsafe when it comes to human rights. We are very concerned that decisions about which countries to include on any such “safe country of origin” list will almost inevitably be influenced by considerations other than human rights, including trading relationships and security cooperation with other governments.
One of the other organizations that has taken a very key interest in this is the Canadian Bar Association. Its citizenship and immigration law section is very concerned about the bill and asked that it be subject to a referral before second reading so that the committee could deal with the very serious concerns that are raised in it.
Yesterday I met with a refugee activist in British Columbia who is also very concerned about this legislation. She was very concerned that safe countries do not necessarily mean that all the people of those countries are safe and that the legislation needs to talk about safe people. She was also concerned about the language around bogus claims and abuse of the system, which she thinks was not particularly helpful in all of this.
There are many concerns about this legislation. I hope we can have a very fulsome debate on it and one at committee as well. I would have preferred that we got there before second reading so it could be a really extensive debate at committee.