Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak very strongly in opposition to Bill C-31, which has been given another one of those new-speak titles, protecting Canada's immigration system act.
It is really a reincarnation of the previous Bill C-4, which I spoke against on second reading, so I will repeat some of those same arguments. Essentially this new bill has most of those same flaws as the previous bill.
I am opposed to the bill based, first, on my personal experience. In the 1980s, I became involved in refugee work, largely around the political crisis in Central America. I became the co-founder of the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre and I opened my own home to refugees who fled for their lives, having had other members of their families killed or tortured as a result of violence in Central America. I also worked as an international human rights monitor in East Timor, Ambon in Indonesia and in Afghanistan. Therefore, I have seen the situations which create the international refugees who seek safety for themselves and their families in Canada.
I am also opposed based on my concerns about the bill being a violation of both Canada's Charter of Rights and our international obligations, in particular, the designation of certain claimants as irregular arrivals and creating a second class of refugee claimants who are subject to various severe measures, including potential detention for a year.
Members on the other side like to the point to the fact they have improved the bill because now children will not be kept with their parents in detention, but will be sent into some limbo outside detention.
The bar on applying for permanent residency status for five years means it would be very difficult to reunify families because individuals would also not be allowed to sponsor their families for five years and would have no access to the refugee appeals division.
It is also based on my general opposition to the new-speak we see again and again on the other side of the House in taking away the status of permanent resident, which would imply, once an individual is granted it, they would be allowed to stay in Canada permanently. Under the bill, a permanent resident would no longer mean permanent. It would be subject to a decision of the minister to decide whether individuals could stay in the country or whether they would have to go back. Individuals, having brought their family to safety, having established themselves in Canada, after an arbitrary decision by the minister, they could be forced to leave and return to that country and give up all the progress they have made in re-establishing their lives.
It is also based on my doubts about how we have come to have the bill in front of us. The previous bill, Bill C-11, passed in the previous Parliament, was a compromise between all parties working on the immigrant and refugee system, but it was never allowed to work.
What we have before us is another unfortunate example of what I call government by headlines and the politics of resentment. In particular, in Conservatives speeches we hear lots of reference to queue-jumping, to exploiting our generosity and playing on the emotions of Canadians about somehow, someone getting something to which he or she is not entitled.
The Conservatives like to pick the extreme examples. They like to pick the exceptions, which no one would support, and then attempt to make public policy on those exceptions.
I am also opposed to this because it is another case of a policy based on the concept of deterrence, which the government likes to use in criminal justice. It is a concept which has no basis in fact. Tough penalties would of course deter law abiding citizens. As one of the witnesses who appeared at the public safety committee said, “Yes, tough sentences deter you and me because we have something to lose. They deter all law-abiding citizens who understand the concept of community. They do not deter criminals”.
They certainly would not deter genuine refugees fleeing for their lives and they certainly would not deter the profiteers engaged in human smuggling. They already face maximum penalties of up to $1 million and life sentences. Therefore, if tough penalties were deterrents, we would see no human smuggling because there are no penalties bigger than that in the Canadian legal system.
However, make no mistake, I believe in deterrents based on what actually works. If we look at all the literature on criminal justice, it is the same things that also apply to refugee claimants. What works is the certainty of being caught and the swiftness of prosecution. Therefore, the certainty that a bogus claim would be identified and the speed with which that claim would be dealt with is what would deter those claims, not making restrictions on legitimate refugee claimants' rights and their ability to access the process.
The real solution is to apply more resources to the front end of our existing system so that those who make claims know that their claims will be dealt with in a matter of weeks or months, not a matter of years, and they know that bogus claims will not succeed in our system.
The government appears to set out some very nice targets in the bill that these new categories of refugees will have to meet, but in the absence of new resources the government will not meet those targets either. Therefore, we will pass a bill, which endangers the rights of many legitimate refugees, without achieving the swiftness the government claims will result from these measures because it will not have the resources in the system to actually accomplish this.
I will now turn to what I think is the most serious flaw in the bill, which is the process of designating certain countries as safe countries. This is a flawed concept and, once adopted, creates another second class of refugee claimants and provides severe restrictions on the rights of those who come from what is designated a safe country and on their ability to make effective refugee claims.
There was a compromise reached in the previous bill, Bill C-11, which said that safe countries could be designated, but it would be done by a panel of experts, not the minister, and the designation would allow for the exemption of certain geographic areas or certain classes of persons. We all know that there are certain countries where things are completely safe and other regions of the country where things might not be safe.
Under this bill, the designation of a country is either safe or not safe. It is safe for everyone in every place or it is not safe. The previous bill would have allowed the designation of women, in areas where violations of rights against women are rampant, as an exempted class, so the country might be safe for men but not for women. It would have allowed the designation of gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people, who are rarely safe in most countries around the world, as a class of people who could come from what was otherwise a safe country. The bill does not allow those designations of classes or geographic areas as exempt from the safe country designation.
Now I will turn to the particular situation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered refugees under the bill. I want to do so not just because I am a gay man and also an immigrant whose basic decision to move to Canada was, in large part, based on the criminalization of homosexuality in my country of origin at the time. It is a big part of why I stand here today. The safe country concept will have a disproportionate impact on these refugees from my community. Those coming from a designated safe country are required to make a claim within 15 days of arrival. In that 15 days they have to decide whether they would make a humanitarian and compassionate claim or a refugee claim. When I came, I would have had no idea what that meant, and in 15 days I would have had no ability to figure that out. I firmly believe that most refugees will be in that situation. As well, they have only 15 days to find legal representation. If they come from a society, and sometimes from a family, where declaring their sexuality meant great losses on a personal level and a great threat to their safety, they have only 15 days to change their mindset whether to go and talk to a stranger and confess everything that has happened in their personal life that caused them to become a refugee.
From personal experience, I can say that would have been very difficult for me to do. I know it is very difficult for the current lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered refugees.
There is a particularly large problem with the 15-day limit because the claimant would then appear before an adjudicator, a single individual who would have no knowledge of the situation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities in the country of origin. Therefore, not only would individuals have to make their personal claim about their sexual orientation and how that made them unsafe, they would also have to demonstrate how their community was unsafe in their country as a whole. I doubt there are any refugees from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities who would be able to do so in that 15-day period.
Without identifying the individual, I want to talk for a moment about a refugee who came from the Caribbean when he was 17 years old. His life was threatened when it was found out that he was gay. Every day he went to high school in a taxi, paid for by his aunt from Toronto so that he could finish high school at home. Then he was spirited to Canada. When he went to make a refugee claim, he did not want to talk about the personal experiences that made it necessary for him to flee. He did not want to confess to being gay even to his lawyer. It took six months for his lawyer to get the full story from him and then document what had happened to him in his country of origin. Therefore, to try to do that in 15 days is virtually impossible.
What is the real solution here? The Canadian Council for Refugees said scrap the bill. I certainly stand with it here today. The Canadian Bar Association has expressed its concerns about charter rights violations. Amnesty International said that the bill fell far short of Canada's international obligations.
What would I suggest? I would suggest that we go back to letting Bill C-11, the compromise bill, work and that we ensure the government provides a proper resource system so Canada can continue to be a safe place for refugees, genuine refugees, from around the world to make their home.