Mr. Speaker, the character of a nation is often defined by how we treat people in desperate situations who come to our shores seeking asylum, safe haven or a better life.
Canada has two sides. One is very generous. If we look at the situation at the turn of the last century, tens of thousands of Irish immigrant refugees fleeing the potato famine arrived at the shores of Canada. Some came to Toronto. At that time the city of York only had 20,000 to 30,000 people, and yet 50,000 Irish refugees came to its shores.
At that time many of them were sick. The people of the city of York could have said they were not welcome, that they were afraid of their diseases and that they should go home, and then could have sent them away. Instead the medical officer of health and many of the residents in the city of York opened up their doors, were very generous and helped to treat them, even to the extent that one of the Protestant medical officers of health died of the disease.
However, there is another side and face to Canada's immigration policy. We can remember many Jewish refugees who tried to come to Canada and were sent away. At that time there were two successive immigration ministers who basically did not want to welcome them. We sent them home. We refused them entry.
At the end of that period, only 5,000 of them came to Canada. We know that had we opened up our doors during that period, many more thousands or tens of thousands of lives could have been saved. They could have found homes and started their families in Canada. That was a dark page of Canadian history.
Much later, in the 1960s, we sent Indians back on the Komagata Maru, some to their death. Again, that period was not a proud time in the history of immigration policy in Canada.
As we go into this debate on this refugee reform bill, Bill C-11, perhaps what we should do is remember that history and that reputation for generosity and for sharing what we have, versus a government that was obsessed with narrow national self-interest. At that time there was also an obsession with elections. We could see these people coming to our shores, either as people seeking new opportunities or as queue-jumpers or people who wanted to scam our system. That is a different way of seeing people who come to Canada.
We know that how we treat these refugees sometimes determines their life or death. If we send them back, sometimes they go to prison or end up being tortured. Some endure beatings or starvation, so in many ways we have to be very cautious.
We have seen examples. A young Mexican woman came to Canada twice, trying to leave the drug lords in Mexico. She was refused refugee status. After the second time she returned to Mexico, she was kidnapped by the people she was originally trying to run away from, and in June 2009 she was found dead with a bullet in her head. How we treat refugees really does sometimes mean life and death.
As a principle of a fast and fair refugee determination, what we want to see is high-quality initial decisions. Get it right the first time.
Let us make sure we keep it non-political and have an independent body make all the decisions. Let us keep the laws simple and not have unnecessary rules or a complicated process. We should also make sure we have the necessary resources in place so that we can avoid backlogs. We should always remember that human lives are at stake and adhere to human rights standards.
As New Democrats, we have long proposed a fast and fair refugee determination process. We have said that all appointments of Immigration and Refugee Board members should be done through an independent appointment commissioner with set criteria.
Right now members are picked by their merits. However, if the minister has 10 names in front of him, he can pick person A versus person B. Persons A and B are both supposed to be qualified, but perhaps person A happens to be a failed Conservative political candidate or someone who donated money. That person could be picked over person B, who happens to have no political background whatsoever. It is very important that an independent appointment commissioner be set up through the Federal Accountability Act, Bill C-2, which was passed in 2006. Those kinds of appointments should be done through an arm's-length commissioner.
Number two, New Democrats have said that we need to hire more permanent refugee protection officers to clear the backlog. That is a no-brainer. If there is a backlog, hire more officers to clear the backlog.
Number three, make sure there is legislation so that the unscrupulous immigration consultants who are telling people how to lie cannot practise. We need to crack down on them, ban them, punish them and throw them in jail. We need to ensure that we ban them from the Immigration and Refugee Board hearing room so that these unscrupulous middle people cannot coach refugees on how to lie.
On the flip side, we must provide legal aid for proper representation. Refugees often come to Canada penniless. Whether they are Jewish, Irish or Indian refugees, when they come to Canada they often do not have money for a court system, so we must provide legal aid to some of the most desperate people.
Number four, we have also said that we must set up a refugee appeal division so that consistent decisions would be made based on law and fact. In fact Parliament mandated such an appeal division in 2001, and successive former Liberal governments chose to ignore it.
Since 2006, the new Conservative government could have implemented all of these recommendations, but through the years it emptied out the refugee board. When it came to power, it did not want to reappoint the Liberal cronies to the Immigration and Refugee Board, so the minister at that time became paralyzed by uncertainty and took no action. He stopped most of the appointments and left the board mostly vacant. The number of refugees waiting their turn for the board to decide their fate grew larger by the day because there was no one around to make the decision.
Critics watched the situation, grew alarmed and said this was going to be disastrous. Even the Auditor General said in one of her reports that the whole system was collapsing and that the government should do something, because it was taking far too long to appoint and train people and it was costly. Against this backdrop, two years later the board is now full, but the minister is now trying to address a crisis that was created partially by his own party.
Bill C-11, the refugee reform act, has a few merits.
One, the process is speedy. Yes, the refugees want to be united with their loved ones, so refugees who come to our shores want us to make fast decisions so that they can bring some of their children and their loved ones who are in refugee camps or urban slums in poor countries to Canada and be united with them. Speed is good.
Two, the bill establishes an appeal process for some refugee claimants. That also is good.
Three, it provides more funding to the Immigration and Refugee Board to clear the backlog. However, we would prefer to see much of the funding go to the Immigration and Refugee Board and the protection officers instead of most of it going to the CBSA, the Canada Border Service Agency and to the Department of Justice to appoint more Federal Court judges. We would prefer to see more refugee claimants as each year's target. We do not believe 9,000 is an adequate number. In 2005 there were 25,000 refugee claimants that were approved in Canada, inland applications were approved.
There is one more aspect in the bill that is good, an assisted voluntary return program, so failed and destitute refugee claimants can get a little help to return to their homeland.
However, this Conservative refugee reform bill has serious flaws.
Problem number one is the safe countries list. The introduction of safe country of origin means the minister has the power to create two classes of refugees: those who have the right to appeal and those who do not have that right.
Claimants who would be particularly hurt would include women making gender-based claims, for example, the one that was raised in the House today. Mrs. Sow was beaten by her second husband. She found a safe haven in Canada, but her case was denied.
Claimants who are most hurt in the safe countries designation would also include people claiming refugee status on the basis of sexual orientation or sexual identity. In many countries that otherwise seem fair and peaceful, there can be serious problems of persecution based on gender or sexual orientation. In 50 years of studying human rights, the international community has learned that there is no country that can easily be declared safe. That is why fundamentally this is a serious flaw in the bill.
Problem number two is that the first hearing is not done by people with any independence of the department or the minister. Bill C-11 sacrifices fairness in the hearing of refugees' claims and centralizes the power in the department and the minister. That is a substantial problem because it really should be an arm's-length group of people who make the first decision. We have seen countries on the safe countries list that have a huge number of appeals and do not allow those appeals to be successful. Making a right decision at the beginning is critically important, and having the first hearing done by officers is not the proper way to do it.
Problem number three is that if those refugees come from safe countries and have no right to appeal, most likely they will not have access to the pre-removal risk assessment within the first year because they are likely to be deported within one year. The problem with the pre-removal risk assessment, even if they do have access, is it takes a long time. Normally it takes close to two years to get a pre-removal risk assessment decision, which means that claimants could be deported before the hearings are done. That is a problem for claimants who are from so-called safe countries.
For example, Ghana is seen as a safe country. In Ghana if a person is gay or lesbian, the person will be punished and thrown into jail because it is illegal to be identified as gay or lesbian.
There are also countries that support female genital mutilation. There are other countries that are supposed to be safe that have a huge number of human rights violations.
Therefore, having a safe country list is not a good way to go.
Furthermore, even though the minister promised many times that there would be action, Bill C-11 does not address the problem of unscrupulous immigration consultants. When we speed up the timelines and get to the first hearing very quickly, it drives many refugee claimants to these so-called immigration consultants who are not licensed and are not qualified. Why? Because a person cannot get legal aid within eight days.
When a person has a hearing within eight days and tries to get legal aid, say in Ontario, the person cannot get legal aid that quickly. We asked some of the people who came to my office why they did not try to retain someone who knows the immigration and refugee law. They said that it takes a long time to get legal aid. Some refugees do not have the funding to do so. It would probably drive more claimants to unscrupulous consultants.
What should we do at this point? My preference was that the bill be sent to the immigration committee before second reading so that there could be amendments. The minister did not agree to that, even though that was the route I preferred to take.
Since that is the case, the bill will go to the citizenship and immigration committee after second reading. At committee we should carefully examine the bill. We must make some amendments as I have suggested to slow down some of the initial processes, to change some of the regulations, to remove the safe countries designation. We must hear from some of the people who have many years of experience dealing with refugees, such as people from the Canadian Council of Refugees, Amnesty International, the Canadian Bar Association, and some of the refugee organizations. Those are the organizations that we must listen to very carefully in order to make the right decisions.
I hope the minister and his government will allow some fundamental amendments at the immigration committee.