Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise on the matter of Bill C-31 and its prospective immigration reform. Regrettably, rather than being the transformational reform the minister envisages, though some of his reforms have been commendable, this bill, not unlike its earlier incarnation that experts characterized as being “littered with charter violations”, is seriously flawed from a constitutional perspective in its constitutionally suspect provisions; from an international perspective in its breaching of our international obligations; from a humanitarian perspective its turning its back on our humanitarian ethos; and from a policy perspective in its granting to ministers of broad, arbitrary, and sometimes non-reviewable powers, while removing avenues of appeal and review for applicants. In particular, this legislation reflects a serious lack of appreciation of what it means to be a refugee escaping persecution, and it can amount to gratuitous punishment of those seeking our protection.
Let me identify some of the defects in this legislation.
First, Bill C-31 would impose unrealistic and unfair deadlines on refugee claimants that would force them to make representations, perhaps at the moment they are most vulnerable, for example having just experienced violence, torture or sexual assault, and then finding themselves in a new country in an unfamiliar situation, not to mention a situation where a language barrier may likely exist, and where a failure to meet deadlines may pre-emptively disqualify their claim without affording them a fair and reasonable opportunity to establish such a refugee claim. For example, the 15-day window for refugee claimants to deliver a written version of the basis of their refugee claim is simply not enough time for refugees to seek legal advice and to do all that is necessary for the preparation of such claims. This includes responding to complicated legal requirements, gathering the evidence to prove their claim and making the legal case. Moreover, the 15-day window to complete an appeal application is equally unfair and limits the possibility of their pursuing such an appeal, such that mistakes that may be made by the Immigration and Refugee Board may go uncorrected. This legislation would serve in some respects, however inadvertent it may be, to have as its effect the double victimization of those who have been initially victimized by the smugglers exploiting them, and who then end up being victimized when they seek protection on our shores.
This brings me to the second point. The revised process for designating certain countries as safe eliminates an expert independent advisory body that could guard against countries being designated on the basis of erroneous political, economic or other considerations. Individuals from those countries under this legislation would face discriminatory treatment respecting matters as fundamental as access to justice, given that the processing of their claims would occur more slowly than for those from non-designated countries. Not only may this violate UN convention rights, but it also goes against the very premise that all are entitled to equal and impartial hearings regardless of the country of origin. Moreover, the way countries are designated, by a calculation of the number of rejected applicants, we may end up with a situation where a few bad apples can spoil the bunch. Therefore, while there may be numerous false claims from a country, why should we penalize all from that country where there may indeed be bona fide applicants in dire need of protection? Moreover, claimants from these countries would also face immediate removal without a right of appeal, thereby increasing the possibility that those facing a legitimate fear of prosecution would be deported. This flies in the face of our constitutional obligations, as confirmed by the Supreme Court, that we simply cannot deport people to situations of torture or terror.
Third, the bill calls for the mandatory non-reviewable and year-long detention of designated foreign nationals 16 years of age or over, which itself is an arguable breach of both our charter rights and related Supreme Court jurisprudence, which hold that such detentions without review are patently illegal. In the government's rush to incarcerate, a phenomenon that we also saw with Bill C-10, it ignores that there are suffering humans involved who may be in legitimate need of serious protection.
At the end of the day, what this would do is simply immunize error in our refugee system while prejudicing the rights of prospective asylum seekers.
Moreover, the minister himself has acknowledged that there are flaws in this proposal, noting in this place:
We will be moving an amendment to Bill C-31 to allow minors under the age 16 who are not accompanied by their parents to be released from detention if they have been smuggled into the country.
While I appreciate the minister's response in that regard, and I appreciate his presence here and engagement in this debate, it is yet again this rush to legislate without considering all the variables that results in flaws that end up having to be addressed and redressed.
Further, those who are granted refugee status would nonetheless be denied the right to apply for permanent residency for a period of five years. During this period, refugees would be prohibited from applying to reunite in Canada with spouses and their children. In effect, this means that actual reunification could be delayed for approximately six to eight years after being granted refugee status. They would be required to report regularly to immigration authorities for questioning and to produce documents. They would be prohibited from travelling outside Canada for any reason during the period. Arguably again this is in breach of our international human rights and humanitarian obligations in this regard.
As a final note on this point, let us not forget that there are extensive costs associated with the detention of refugees, not simply in terms of their physical detention which is costly on its own, but costs to the system later on in terms of mental health issues resulting from prolonged detention which history suggests could also be a significant burden. This is an issue that was not properly addressed in Bill C-10 and which we are going to be revisiting here in this legislation.
Fourth, this bill targets the permanent residence status of refugees by providing that their status may be revoked if the minister determines that they are no longer in need of protection. This provision could be applied against refugees who make claims in Canada or those who have been resettled to Canada from refugee camps abroad. It could even apply retroactively. As such, refugees who have been living in Canada for even decades and have established lives, families and careers here may be stripped of their status if the minister sees fit.
I would be prepared to say that the minister would not act in such an arbitrary manner, but the legislation does grant that kind of authority for that kind of power to be so arbitrarily exercised.
Indeed, as the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers put it, this provision “undermines Canada's commitment to refugees, makes a mockery of our commitment to the United Nations to provide permanent resettlement to refugees and puts at risk of deportation tens of thousands of refugees who have already been granted permanent residence in Canada”.
Fifth, the bill makes changes to the judicial review process in ways that are highly problematic, constitutionally suspect, and undesirable from a policy point of view.
The proposed bill removes the automatic stay of removal when filing for judicial review for claimants from designated countries of origin, claimants under an exemption to the safe third country agreement, claimants whose claims have been determined to be manifestly unfounded or of no credible basis, and claimants who arrive as part of a designated irregular arrival.
Not only does this prejudice certain applicants further, as I noted in my initial remarks about the problem of having designated countries in the first place, it is problematic in that claimants who have a valid claim as recognized by the courts would be forced to fight their court case from abroad. It is difficult enough for such claimants to argue their cases here in Canada, but it becomes even more difficult when they are forced to do so from a distance. If the court finds that the claimant is correct and should be allowed to stay here, will Canada fund the person's return voyage? Or is the government's plan thereby to end up removing more than needs to be removed and make it more difficult for people to come back?
Sixth and related, the legislation allows the Canada Border Services Agency to establish regulations concerning factors to consider when deferring removal. In this regard, we see a change in the legislation where removal orders are to be enforced as soon as is reasonably practicable, to use the language of Bill C-31, which says that the order must be enforced as soon as possible. This could cause a problem.
Time does not permit me to get into any other concerns, so I will quote the Canadian Civil Liberties Association by way of conclusion:
The provisions of Bill C-31 stand in stark contrast to Canada's legal obligations under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a variety of international human rights conventions. Furthermore, this bill represents a dramatic departure from the ethos and reputation of Canada....