Madam Speaker, I rise today to speak to the Conservative government bill that will have a major impact on the refugee determination mechanism. Bill C-11 amends the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Federal Courts Act.
This issue is close to my heart, because as part of my main responsibilities in the House, I have criticized the immigration ministers one by one for the injustices that asylum seekers and refugee claimants from other countries suffer in Canada. Still today, many people come to our offices and ask us to help them. There is a great deal to be done, and this is a long-awaited reform of the refugee determination system. The current act provides for the appeal division, and we have repeatedly introduced legislation in the House to force Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the IRB to implement the refugee appeal division.
The bill introduced by the government does make some improvements. But some provisions of the bill raise questions about whether the government will achieve the goal of the reform, which is to put in place an improved refugee determination system and to deal with the case backlog.
We also wonder whether the government will put the required resources in the right place to avoid backlogs. It did not do so in the past, so why would it do so now? The refugee determination system has been extensively studied for years. Six years ago, in 2004, the Bloc Québécois condemned the lack of decision-makers and the fact that the government was slow to fill IRB vacancies. Despite the will of this Parliament, as expressed in the 2001 legislation, neither the Liberal nor the Conservative government has fully implemented the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. What is more, many organizations are leery of the government's intentions, because they have been fooled before and they do not want to fall for the same thing again. I hope the government is not trying to fool its partners by including provisions on the refugee appeal division in the bill. We expect the division to be put in place as soon as possible.
The minister does not need this new bill to implement the refugee appeal division. The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act already makes provision for it. Why should we believe the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism when all the ministers who have come before him have used the most vulnerable people, those who are looking for protection from Canada, to justify their inaction?
I can think of many examples of vulnerable people who have suffered because they were forced to abide by decisions that made no sense. As a member of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, I am responsible for, among other things, studying reports from the Auditor General of Canada, Sheila Fraser. She has been very critical of senior IRB officials and what they have been up to over the past nine years. Never in the history of the IRB have there been such long waiting lists. The backlog is unbelievable.
The Auditor General of Canada has warned the government about the repercussions of this ballooning backlog several times. Nothing has been done about it yet. Despite warnings and opinions from experts in the field of determining refugee status, the government has hamstrung the IRB in order to justify bringing in reforms with major shortcomings and ineffective measures.
Who let the backlog swell from 20,000 cases to over 60,000? Who delayed the appointment of IRB members and kept staffing levels extremely low with a shortage of, on average, 50 board members? I am sure everyone will agree that letting things get this bad is unacceptable.
The government wants claimants to have their interview within a week and their hearing within 60 days. The current system is paralyzed. It has reached the point where it can no longer function because the lawyers who represent clients before the IRB have no way of knowing when they will get a hearing. This proposal would add pressure to the system and would be very difficult to carry out. Interviews typically last four or five hours. Is a week enough time to collect all of the information needed for the hearing?
Currently, the information collected is often incomplete and not always useful to the decision-making process. It is not easy to make speedy decisions about who deserves protection as a refugee. That is why we need a mechanism to evaluate claims based on merit.
We must continue to invest in the quality of the initial decisions.
If a hearing is held when the applicant is not ready or the evidence not available, more bad decisions will be made and they will have to be overturned on appeal. It is better to take the time needed to make the right decision the first time.
Once again, the government is rushing through a bill without widely consulting the main players in the field. I maintain that a bill like this deserves thorough study, given the immediate repercussions on the way the refugee system operates.
We have been waiting for implementation of the refugee appeal division since 2001. Access to an appeal on the merits of a decision is needed in order to correct mistakes that inevitably occur at the first level.
In 2004, the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration unanimously adopted a Bloc Québécois motion requiring the federal government to immediately establish the appeal division. On a number of occasions, bills have been debated in Parliament to force the implementation of the refugee appeal division. However, we have reservations about excluding applicants from countries that have been designated as safe by the minister.
In the government's view, its proposals would reduce waiting times, which would benefit the people who really need Canada's protection. The government is publicly arguing that many people fraudulently attempt to enter or remain in Canada by various means. Also, according to this same government, these procedures are costly for taxpayers.
I challenge anyone in Parliament to confirm that the government's proposed model will be less costly and to submit studies to that effect. Which measure will deal with costs in Bill C-11? I have found nothing in the bill dealing with cost.
As for eliminating fraudulent claims, does the bill have effective measures to reduce their number? It has none. There is no provision to prevent these types of claims being received and recorded.
Inevitably, in its reform, the federal government is attempting to implement measures that have been hurriedly thrown together. I appreciate the minister's comments and I hope that we will be able to present an excellent bill.
They are speaking publicly about the concept of safe countries of origin. It is worrisome that the bill does not specify anywhere what is meant by the word “safe”. It is up to the minister to designate the safe countries of origin. Each refugee claim must be examined individually. How can the minister meet that requirement if he agrees to include measures for the processing of claims that discriminate based on their country of origin?
Refugee claimants from countries that are deemed safe face the risk that the government will decide that their claim is unlikely to be justified, since the country they come from has been deemed safe.
Nothing changes for claimants from countries that are deemed safe. They will have no right to appeal their case before the refugee appeal division and will be forced to take their cases before the Federal Court, as they must do now. No new evidence can be presented to support a reversal of the first level decision.
I invite all parliamentarians to have another look at the testimony given by senior officials from the Department of Justice regarding the staffing and performance of the Federal Court. They appeared before the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration and said there were no problems in that regard, as long as no new evidence, apart from procedural errors, can be presented.
I am deeply concerned about the basic principles of this reform. I am convinced that the proposed measures will not produce the desired results and that they will only lead to new problems in the end, unless the members of the House agree to a number of amendments.
Refugee claims must be processed in a timely manner. However, this must not be done to the detriment of the most vulnerable claimants. The challenge ahead is formidable: a decision must be made as soon as possible regarding the refugee determination process.