moved that Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to begin debate on Bill C-31, an act to protect Canada's immigration system.
Canada has a proud tradition as a welcoming country. For generations, for centuries, we have welcomed newcomers from all parts of the globe.
For more than four centuries, we have welcomed new arrivals, economic immigrants, pioneers, farmers, workers and, of course, refugees needing our protection. We have a humanitarian tradition that we are very proud of. During the 19th century, Canada was the North Star for slaves fleeing the United States. We accepted tens of thousands of black Americans and offered them freedom and protection.
Throughout the 20th century, we welcomed more than one million refugees, including those who fled communist governments, like the people of Hungary in 1956, when we welcomed 50,000 Hungarian nationals. In 1979, we accepted 60,000 Vietnamese nationals, refugees who were fleeing that decade's communism. We are very proud of our tradition. With this bill, this government is going to reinforce and enhance our tradition of protecting refugees.
I am pleased to say that our government is increasing by some 20% the number of resettled refugees, UN convention refugees who are living in camps in deplorable circumstances around the world. We will now accept them and give them a new life and a new beginning here in Canada. We are also increasing by some 20% the refugee assistance program to assist with the initial integration costs of government assisted refugees who arrive here.
We continue to maintain the most generous and open immigration program in the world since our government came to office, welcoming more than a quarter of a million new permanent residents each year, the highest sustained level of immigration in Canadian history, adding 0.8% of our population per year through immigration, representing the highest per capita level of immigration in the developed world.
However, for us to maintain this openness, this generosity toward newcomers, both economic immigrants and refugees, we must demonstrate that our immigration and refugee programs are characterized by fair rules and their consistent application.
Canadians are a generous and open-minded people but they also believe in fair play. Canadians insist, particularly new Canadians, that those who seek to enter Canada do so in a way that is fully respectful of our fair and balanced immigration and refugee laws.
That is why Canadians are worried when they see large human smuggling operations, for example, the two large ships that arrived on Canada's west coast in the past two years with hundreds of passengers, illegal migrants who paid criminal networks to be brought to Canada in an illegal and very dangerous manner.
Canadians are also worried when they see a large number of false refugee claimants who do not need Canada's protection, but who file refugee claims because they see an opportunity in Canada's current refugee system to stay in Canada permanently and have access to social benefits even though they are not really refugees in need of our country's protection.
Canadians want Parliament and this government to take strong and meaningful action to reinforce the integrity and fairness of our immigration and refugee systems, which is why we tabled Bill C-31.
The bill has three principal elements: First, it includes essentially all of the provisions of the bill currently on the order paper known as Bill C-11, a bill designed to combat human smugglers from targeting Canada and treating this country like a doormat; second, it includes important revisions and improvements to our asylum system to ensure that we grant fast protection to bona fide refugees who need Canada's assistance, but that we remove from Canada false asylum claimants who seek to abuse our generosity; and third, it would provide for the legislative authorities for the creation of a new biometric temporary resident visa program which would be the single-most important advance in immigration security screening and the integrity of our system in decades.
With regard to the first question, as I was saying, the destination for major voyages organized by criminal networks in Southeast Asia and human smugglers was Canada. Only two major voyages have reached Canada in the past two years. Thanks to the efforts of our intelligence and policing agencies and the co-operation of the countries of transit of the illegal migrants from Southeast Asia, we managed to prevent a number of other human smuggling voyages from reaching Canada.
Thanks to the strong investigatory police and intelligence operations of our agencies in Southeast Asia and in West Africa, we have succeeded in preventing several large planned voyages of illegal smuggled migrants to Canada. I know some members of the opposition categorize these as humanitarian missions of hapless refugees but we need to be clear on what we are talking about. The networks targeting Canada were typically gunrunners running illegal armaments and weapons into the Sri Lankan civil war. They were profiteering from one of the deadliest civil wars around the world in recent decades. When the war ended, they needed a new commodity to move so they took on people. Every year around the world, thousands of people die in dangerous illegal human smuggling operations, whether they are marine migrants off the coasts of Australia, or people being smuggled in cargo containers who suffocate to death as they cross the British Channel, or people who are dying while trying to cross the Mexico–U.S. border under the guidance of coyotes of illegal smugglers.
Every year, thousands of people die as a result of human smuggling networks. We therefore have a legal and moral obligation to put an end to these dangerous human smuggling operations and prevent the deaths that occur each year.
I do not want to be the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism on whose watch we have a large vessel of illegal smuggled migrants headed to Canada in a leaky vessel that goes down in the Pacific Ocean at the great cost of human life if we have not done everything within our power to prevent human smugglers from targeting this country.
The anti-smuggling provisions of Bill C-31, which were previously included in Bill C-11, would give us additional tools to combat the smugglers. First, it would impose stronger penalties, both in financial fines and prison sentences, on the shipowners and the smugglers, although, admittedly, it is very hard to prosecute the smugglers because they typically operate offshore.
Second, the bill would enhance detention provisions for smuggled migrants who arrive in an operation that would be designated by the Minister of Public Safety as a designated irregular arrival or smuggling event. This is because when hundreds of people arrive in such an operation without documents, without visas, having arrived illegally in violation of several immigration and marine laws or other statutes, we need the time to be able to identify who they are. We need to know whether they are admissible to Canada and whether they constitute a security risk to our country. We cannot practically do that for a large number of smuggled migrants overnight.
We have to be able to keep illegal immigrants in custody, in a completely humanitarian way, so that they can be identified. However, let us be clear: Bill C-31 continues to give migrants, even illegal and smuggled migrants, the right to file a claim for refugee protection with the Immigration and Refugee Board. We will therefore not refuse anyone access to our asylum system, even in cases where people arrive in the country in illegal ways.
The bill proposes humanely detaining migrants who arrive through illegal smuggling operations for up to 12 months without review.
That again would allow our intelligence agencies to do the necessary background checks on such individuals.
I should mention that these provisions are far more modest than those used in most other liberal democratic countries like Australia, New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom and most European countries.
Finally, we would disincentivize illegal migrants from paying often tens of thousands of dollars to criminal gangs in order to be smuggled to Canada by indicating that even if they get a positive protection decision at the IRB, if they arrived in a designated irregular smuggling event, they would not receive permanent residency for at least five years. They would receive protection. They would not be refouled to their country of origin. We would be fully respectful of our legal and moral obligations under the United Nations universal conventions on refugees and torture, as well as our obligations under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Singh decision and other jurisprudence.
We would fully respect our absolute obligation of non-refoulement of people deemed to be facing risk to their lives or persecution in their country of origin, but we are not obliged to give immediate permanent residency to such individuals. With immediate permanent residency comes the privilege, not the absolute right but the privilege, of sponsorship of family members. The reason is that many smuggled migrants, we know from our intelligence, calculate that they will be able to pay the $40,000 or $50,000 obligation that they have made to the smuggling network by sponsoring subsequent family members to help them pay off the debt. We need to create some doubt in the minds of would-be smuggled migrants that they would be able to benefit from such provisions as family reunification. That is what the bill seeks to do.
Second, let us look at the changes to the asylum system proposed in the bill.
I would first like to remind the hon. members that, in June 2010, this House approved important and balanced reforms to the asylum system in order to make it fair and effective, but the current system is broken. It is not working. It takes almost two years for refugee claimants to get a hearing before the IRB. That means the real victims of persecution must wait almost two years to be certain that they have Canada's protection. That is unacceptable.
However, we are seeing an increasing number of false claims for refugee protection in the system. More specifically, since the bill on balanced reforms to the asylum system passed in 2010, there has been rising tide of false asylum claims filed by nationals from countries that are completely democratic, liberal and respectful of human rights. I am speaking specifically about countries in the European Union. Frankly, I find it a bit strange that we are receiving more refugee claims from the European Union than from Asia or Africa. It does not make any sense.
Last year, we received 5,400 refugee claims from European nationals, almost none of whom attended their hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board. That means that almost all European claimants abandon or withdraw their own refugee claims.
Virtually all of these European asylum claimants are abandoning or withdrawing their own asylum claims. They are not even showing up for the hearing. However, what almost every single one of them does show up for is the initial interview that is required to get the status document as an asylum claimant which qualifies them for an open work permit, full interim federal health care benefits, which are better than the health benefits available to most Canadians, provincial welfare payments, and several federal cash grants for programs.
We stand for the protection of real refugees. We stand against the abuse of Canada's generosity. That is why these measures are necessary. They take a balanced approach. I regret to see members of the opposition turn a blind eye to what is widespread abuse of the system. That is not my opinion. That is a reflection of the fact that in too many cases the applicants do not show up for their hearings, but they do show up to collect Canadian social benefits.
What we seek to do is strengthen the reforms adopted in 2010 by allowing the minister to more quickly designate certain countries which are known not normally to produce refugees, which countries would see an abandonment rate at the IRB of 60% or more, or a rejection rate by the IRB of cases heard of 75% or more, and/or which countries are respectful of human rights and are signatories to the UN convention on refugees, which have an independent judiciary and allow independent NGOs to operate. These are the kinds of countries we are talking about. Claimants from those countries would receive a hearing at the IRB in a delay of about 45 days and that is it. They would receive no further appeals.
Under the current system, with the redundant administrative appeals and post-claim recourses, a manifestly unfounded asylum claimant is able to stay in Canada often for up to five or six years or longer and claim benefits that whole period of time. This is a positive incentive for false claimants to abuse and clog up our system, while delaying protection for the bona fide refugees who do need our protection.
I reiterate that the bill would also create the new refugee appeal division. The vast majority of claimants who are coming from countries that do normally produce refugees would for the first time, if rejected at the refugee protection division, have access to a full fact-based appeal at the refugee appeal division of the IRB. This is the first government to have created a full fact-based appeal.
I find it ironic to hear members of the opposition complain that this government is insufficiently concerned about the procedural rights of refugees when the Liberals in particular refused to create the refugee appeal division. We are putting it in place because we want to ensure that real refugees get Canada's protection. That is why we are actually strengthening this dimension of the system.
Finally, the bill includes legislative authorities to allow the government to require foreign nationals to submit biometric data, particularly fingerprints and a digital quality photo, when applying for a temporary resident visa. In doing so, we would be adopting the same approach as Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and increasingly the European Union to harness new technology to facilitate the movement of legitimate visitors, travellers, business people and students to Canada, yet we would be able to better detect those who intend to do this country harm. I have a long list of criminals who have come back to Canada, some as many as 10 times, on fake documents and fake passports. One was deported eight times on more than 30 counts, including theft and fraud, and kept coming back to Canada on fake documents. With biometric visas, that would no longer be possible.
I hope this bill will lead to serious consideration of these important measures to protect our proud humanitarian tradition of refugee protection and our large and open immigration system, but also to maintain the integrity and fairness of that system. That is something we owe all Canadians and new Canadians now and in the future.