Mr. Speaker, I am happy to stand today to add my voice in opposition to this legislation, the anti-refugee bill, and in support of the NDP amendments.
As New Democrats, we oppose the bill because we will not support the punishment of asylum seekers, and that is exactly what the bill would do.
We also believe the Conservative government should change the title of the bill to “the punishing refugees act”. The title of the bill should reflect the nature of its content. If we are to be honest with Canadians, we need to tell them what the minister is doing and the true direction we are headed under the government.
Canadians are proud of our country's tradition of providing protection for those in need. With the passing of Bill C-31, the Conservative government will effectively be killing this tradition.
For over two weeks, the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration heard from witnesses who spoke on the content of Bill C-31. Witness after witness told us this legislation was fundamentally flawed, unconstitutional and concentrated too much power in the hands of one minister.
The well-informed opinion of these witnesses should not be taken lightly. We are talking about witnesses representing Amnesty International, the Canadian Bar Association, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canada Research Chair in Global Migration Studies and front-line workers who provide legal, medical and psychological support to people who have fled persecution. These are experts in this field. They know far more about this topic than many in this room. Therefore, their testimony should be taken seriously and simply not ignored, which is exactly what the government is currently doing.
As I stand in the House, a key component of our highly respected democracy, with plush carpets and clean water, food to eat, peace in our country, I am reminded that elsewhere in the country and around the world people are not so lucky.
Right now, at this very moment, people are being persecuted, are experiencing discrimination, are living through conflict, public unrest and general instability, and some are forced to make the decision to flee the only home they have ever known, fleeing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
People flee their country because they are desperate and they have no other option if they want to ensure the safety of their families. However, with the passing of Bill C-31, if they come to our country as asylum seekers, much like my father did, depending on their means of arrival and undefined number of people they arrive with, instead of being treated like human beings they will be treated like criminals, treated as guilty until proven innocent. We all know that is not the Canadian standard.
The bill would punish victims of persecution and victims of human smuggling. It would punish those who, because of a lack of money or option, would do whatever it takes to keep their families safe. I ask my colleagues in the House to empathize and put themselves in their situation. I ask them to think for a moment of what they would do to keep their partner, their children, their mother, their grandmother safe. If they needed to, would they run, flee the country that was unsafe through any means?
The Conservatives refuse to accept that our system currently works. We already capture the real criminals and deport them. The sentence for human smuggling is already the most punitive it can be in our country, life in prison and a fine of $1 million, yet we continuously hear members opposite saying that we need to take away the rights of victim in order to catch the human smugglers. The bill would do nothing to catch human smugglers. It would punish refugees and refugee claimants and not the human smugglers.
Instead of targeting the illegal smuggling rings, the Conservatives would rather arbitrarily designate some refugees as “irregular arrivals” and incarcerate all of them. Now, upon arrival, designated refugees will be held in provincial jails, handcuffed and treated like prisoners, with minimal review.
New Democrats are opposed to the measures in the bill precisely because Canada will now be known for punishing the most vulnerable and traumatized people in the world.
My constituents are concerned. Some of the refugees who were on the MV Sun Sea and Ocean Lady live in my riding of Scarborough-Rouge River. They have been given refugee protection by our government. They are making a home in our neighbourhoods, contributing to our economy and giving back to our community.
As the designated foreign national category is retroactive to 2009, these valuable members of our community who came on these two migrant vessels, along with future so-called irregular arrivals, will now be treated as second-class citizens under the new two-tier refugee treatment system that will be created.
Under the bill they, and all so-called designated refugees, would be barred from applying for permanent residence for five years. This is different from all other refugees, who are allowed to apply for permanent residency immediately. The bar would prevent families from reuniting for five years and further as they went through the already lengthy sponsorship system.
We are separating children from their parents. If fathers or mothers flee their country to make way for their children, they would now be separated from their families for a minimum of at least seven years. Children who are 13 will be young adults by the time they would see their mother and father again. Formative years of their life will be lived spent away from their parents.
Further, by the time their parents would be eligible to actually sponsor them, the children may not qualify as dependents anymore, meaning that they will now be forced to live permanently separated from their parents and parents separated from their children.
We could have made the bill better. New Democrats proposed concrete changes to the bill. It was a disappointment to the witnesses, the stakeholders and all involved when all of these good propositions that would have provided improvements to the bill were opposed by the government time and time again.
While baby steps were taken, none of the NDP's substantive amendments were adopted by the government members in the committee.
New Democrats have a better solution to our refugee and immigration system. In fact, just last year, all parties compromised to pass Bill C-11, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. That bill was applauded by our current Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.
Bill C-31, however, ignores these compromises and includes all of the worst parts of the former Bill C-11.
What is worse is that Bill C-31 will pass before we will even have the chance to see the outcome of the changes included in Bill C-31. The government has not even allowed for the changes to take place.
One of the most troublesome measures that the Conservatives refused to revise is impossibly tight timelines for submitting an application to the Immigration and Refugee Board. The refugee system is being set up to fail. The asylum seekers are being set up to fail.
Witness after witness, including the Conservatives' own witnesses, said that these timelines were too short, that they would create incomplete and inaccurate applications. On top of that, some refugees would be refused the right to appeal their application.
We all know, unfortunately, that mistakes can be made at the IRB. The board is not perfect. With cuts to its budget and limited resources to hire adjudicators, the likelihood that mistakes will occur would be even greater. New information could come to light after an expedited claim is mistakenly processed. Without access to an appeal, this information may never be heard.
The consequences of these decisions could truly mean life or death.
Banning access to an appeal for some claimants undermines the international obligations to refugees.
A further dangerous consequence of the bill is that the power to designate a country as safe for all is concentrated solely in the hands of the minister. No country is truly safe. A country that may be safe for some residents may be unsafe for other residents.
Impartiality toward the development and maintenance of this list is extremely important. It is confusing why Bill C-31 would remove the safeguard of having a panel of experts maintain and review this list, as was decreed in Bill C-11 .
We have earned a gold standard on how we treat refugees fleeing persecution in the world. The current government is tarnishing our earned reputation. The Conservatives' changes to the refugee and immigration system will erode Canada's humanitarian reputation around the world.
I cannot support the bill and the move to a discriminatory refugee and immigration system. I cannot support the punishment of asylum seekers and refugees. That is why I oppose the bill and support the amendments put forward by the NDP.
The government needs to abandon the legislation and go back to the drawing board.