Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak today in support of Bill C-31, the protecting Canada's immigration system act.
Since Bill C-31 was tabled earlier this year, we have had the opportunity to debate its provisions on a number of different occasions in the House. I have listened to all sides of the debate and my hon. colleagues have made their points with conviction and often with passion.
I remain convinced that Bill C-31 is legislation that will improve our country's immigration system in a number of important ways, including, of course, cracking down on the lucrative business of human smuggling.
Human smugglers are criminals who operate around the world, charging large amounts of money to facilitate illegal migration. This is an important national issue because the actions of human smugglers undermine the security and safety of Canadians.
In some parts of the country, such as British Columbia, there is also an important global issue. It was on Vancouver Island in B.C. where the drama of human smuggling played out most prominently in recent years, in the cases of both the Ocean Lady in 2009 and the Sun Sea in 2010. It was these two incidents, more than any other, that demonstrated that this was not a theoretical problem in the country. It is a real problem.
Last summer, another human smuggling ship, the MV Alicia, carrying almost 90 Sri Lankan Tamils bound for Canada, was intercepted in Indonesia. In January another 200 Tamils seeking to come to Canada were duped by smugglers and left stranded in the small west African country of Togo.
Just a few weeks ago, the SV Tabasco 2, sank off the coast of Nova Scotia. The captain was killed, three crew members are missing and five survivors are requesting refugee status in Canada. The Minister of Public Safety has suggested that this could be another case of human smuggling.
All of these incidents underline the need to take action.
Bill C-31 would help to do so in a number of ways. It would enable the Minister of Public Safety to designate the arrival of a group of individuals into Canada as an “irregular arrival”. It would establish a mandatory detention for those individuals for up to a year in order to determine their identity and admissibility, including whether they had been involved in any legal activity. Mandatory detention would exclude those designated foreign nationals who were under the age of 16. Also, once an individual's refugee claim had been approved, that individual would be released from detention.
The bill would make it easier to prosecute human smugglers and would impose mandatory minimum prison sentences on those convicted of human smuggling. It would hold shipowners and operators to account when their ships were used for human smuggling. It would reduce the attraction of coming to Canada by way of illegal human smuggling by limiting the ability of those who would do so to take advantage of our generous immigration system and social services.
Cracking down on human smugglers is an important element of protecting the integrity of our immigration system. That is why these provisions have been included in Bill C-31.
Aside from human smuggling, the bill aims to strengthen Canada's immigration system in two other very specific ways. The bill would further build on the long needed reforms to the asylum system that were passed in Parliament in June 2010 as part of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. These new measures would further accelerate the processing of refugee claims for nationals from designated countries that generally would not produce refugees. They would also reduce the options available to failed claimants to delay their removal from Canada.
It may surprise some of my hon. colleagues to know that Canada receives more asylum claims from countries in Europe than from either Africa or Asia. Last year alone, almost one-quarter of all refugee claims made in Canada were made by European Union nationals. That should give us pause for thought.
EU countries have strong human rights and democratic systems similar to our own and yet they produced almost 25% of all the refugee claims in this country in 2011. That is up 14% from the previous year. At a time of economic uncertainty for most people, this state of affairs comes with a large price tag for Canadian taxpayers.
In recent years, virtually all EU claims were withdrawn, abandoned or rejected. In 2010-11 alone, this was the case for 93% of European Union claims. If this trend continues, that means that the unfounded claims from the 5,800 European Union nationals who sought asylum last year will cost Canadian taxpayers nearly $170 million.
The refugee reform measures in Bill C-31 would help prevent abuse of the system and would ensure that all of our refugee determination processes are as streamlined as possible. This would be accomplished without affecting the fairness of the system and without compromising any of Canada's international and domestic obligations with respect to refugees.
Finally, the bill would enable the introduction of mandatory biometric collection for screening temporary resident, visa and study and work permit applicants, which would strengthen our immigration program in a number of ways.
This component of the legislation and its corresponding regulations that would follow would allow the government to make it mandatory for temporary resident visa applicants to Canada to have their photographs and fingerprints taken as part of their temporary resident visa applications.
Because biometric data is more reliable and less prone to forgery or theft than documents, these measures would strengthen immigration screening, enhance security and help reduce fraud.
It is no surprise to me that this important bill has received widespread support. This is what immigration lawyer, Julie Taub, had to say:
I’m an immigration and refugee lawyer in Ottawa, and a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board. I can tell you from theory and practice that the current refugee system is very flawed, and cumbersome, and definitely needs an overhaul. It takes up to two years to have a claimant have his hearing. And there are far too many bogus claims that clog up the system, and use very expensive resources at a cost to Canadian taxpayers.
I also like the fact that he is going to fast-track these claims, so they do not clog up the refugee system for genuine claimants. I have clients who’ve been waiting since 2009, early 2010 to have their hearing, and I represent many claimants from, let’s say Africa, the Mid East countries, who base their claim on gender violence or Christian persecution in certain Middle East countries, and they have to wait, because the system is so clogged up with what I consider to be unfounded claims from citizens of safe country of origin.
As Canadian parliamentarians, we should all be committed to maintaining Canada's generous and fair immigration system, which is the envy of the world. We need to ensure that such an important system is always operating in our national interest and as effectively and efficiently as possible. That means that we need to preserve what works well in the immigration system and improve the system in areas where there are shortcomings.
The measures in Bill C-31 are necessary to protect the integrity of our immigration system. I support Bill C-31 and I encourage all of my colleagues in the House to join me in doing so.