Mr. Speaker, Canada purports to be a champion of human rights and in many respects it is, but there are failings in Canada's system and one of those areas is the refugee determination system. Now is the opportunity to fix those failings. Now is the opportunity to improve.
Refugees are not just people in need, they are people. They are part of our history, part of our present and part of our future. The life stories of refugees are informative, not only of injustices around the world but of injustices that occur here in Canada with a bureaucracy that can and should be more responsive, more sensitive, more accommodating and more reasonable to the situations in which refugees find themselves.
Who are refugee claimants? They are people who are often fleeing dangerous situations which often are political and sometimes are societal. They seek fairness and justice for themselves and for their families, the kind of fairness we sometimes take for granted here in Canada.
Canada is an extremely wealthy country, a stable country and a country built on human rights principles. Our refugee system is one of the ways we can actually demonstrate to the world that we can be leaders in establishing a fast and fair system. We should hope that our system is duplicated around the world and not derided.
What we need is a streamlined system that avoids backlogs and makes the right decision the first time based on individual merits and without unnecessary rules. We need a system that truly recognizes it is deciding the future of someone's life and which represents our domestic human rights policies to claimants.
New Democrats have a history of advocating for a better determination system, a system that is fast and fair. We need more independence in the system. One way to do this is to use an independent appointment commissioner to hire Immigration and Refugee Board members. Board members should really have relevant expertise. We need to clear the backlog that exists, and we can do this by hiring more refugee officers.
Time after time we see inconsistent decisions being handed down. There is too much discretion in rejecting claims and not enough discretion in accepting claims. We need to create an appeal division that uses law and fact in order to make consistent decisions.
Refugee hearings have been tainted by bad advice from dodgy immigration consultants. These consultants, as we heard earlier in this House, should no longer be invited to the Immigration and Refugee Board hearing room. We should have the resources that allow for proper and fair representation of claimants and provide them with legal aid.
The bottom line is that we should empower refugee claimants, not stigmatize them. How we treat refugee claimants is indicative of the values our country espouses. In a country built on the backs of people from around the globe, our policies should reflect those values of democracy, fairness, human rights and a minimum standard of care and concern for the lives of others.
Here is some interesting and telling context with respect to the contributing causes of our current claimant backlog. The government has greatly contributed to this problem. The concern it shows now is actually pretty late in the game, although we are encouraged by the concern it is showing.
After the election in January 2006, the government, for murky political reasons, stopped most appointments to the IRB and left many vacancies. This was a system that already had many problems, so it is no wonder that over four years later we have an even bigger problem, a problem that could have been prevented. Let us not kid ourselves; change has only been because of a report of the Auditor General. The report said that the system was flawed, was failing claimants and ultimately, it was failing Canadians.
In 2005 when there were more officers, Canada accepted 25,000 refugee claimants living here. For 2010, the minister is proposing to accept only 9,000 refugees in Canada. To fix a backlog that has been created, the government is proposing to use rejection of applications as a means to meet its targets. Simply put, this is a travesty of human rights.
This refugee reform bill is flawed.
The first flaw is the safe countries list which creates two classes of refugees, those with the right to appeal and those without. Where do we find the fairness in that? We should not let this type of inequality exist in a document that demonstrates our human rights system to the world. The safe countries list ignores the reality of things like gender-based discrimination and sexual orientation-based claimants. It is discriminatory. It is likely that many countries we deem as safe will fail a human rights test based on those two categories alone.
Equality rights have been struck from the immigration guide. Changes to the procedure of the refugee claim process should not follow suit.
The safe country rule discriminates from the get-go, and it does not take reality into account. A safe country is not prima facie safe for all of its citizens. The concept that a safe country exists ignores research, social study and first person accounts.
The second major flaw is that the first hearing is not done by people with any independence to the department or minister. Further to this procedural unfairness, which we have gone to great lengths to prevent domestically, is the limitation of access to pre-removal risk assessment within the first year after a refugee claim is denied. The result of this is that most denied claimants will be deported before having access to the risk assessment, as it takes close to two years to have that assessment decision, and this is unacceptable. We cannot have one type of legal or procedural system for Canadians and another for non-Canadians. It is unfair, it is negligent and it is contrary to our human rights codes.
There are several amendments that would make Bill C-11 more suited to the actual needs faced by refugees. The NDP is making proposals that are in the interests of claimants and which respect human rights and procedural fairness.
Those amendments include things like all refugee claimants should have access to the refugee appeal division. We need to remove the provision for the safe countries of origin in keeping with our human rights regime within Canada. Each individual's circumstances are unique and we should respect that. At minimum, the process for determining a safe country of origin should be streamlined and should reflect the realities of people from marginalized communities living in tolerant majorities.
Currently, some claimants can be removed before a PRRA decision is made. This should be stopped and the process should be speeded up from two years to six months. We need to review and provide an independent evaluation of the legislative changes after three years' implementation, and these results should be sent to CIMM and refugee advocates for discussion.
I would like to conclude with a few thoughts. Certainly, New Democrats support efforts to make refugee determinations happen expeditiously, absolutely, but the current plan that has been brought forward is insufficient and we do need those amendments. The plan does not reflect the realities of being a refugee claimant, nor does it adequately reflect that Canada's human rights regime is one of the best in the world, and for a reason: We do not purport to treat people in this country differently just because they are not citizens yet. That is why people want to come here. That is why Canada is seen as a land of equality and freedom.
Our refugee system should be entrenched in those values, the same values that keep me and my colleagues in the House safe every day. We are not a country of double standards or hierarchy and we cannot tolerate it in any of our legislation.
There are flaws in Bill C-11, but I believe we can make this bill better with amendments. I believe we can make it better for the reasons I have outlined, so I look forward to seeing it at committee.