Madam Speaker, it is critical that we examine the legislation before us and ensure that the refugee system reform measures will fix the refugee system challenges our country faces. Let us put the system into its proper context.
Today we have a backlog of 63,000 refugee claims. People in genuine need of protection wait about 19 months for processing claims. We have witnessed the drastic 50% decrease in the number of finalized claims and an almost 50% increase in the cost to finalize a single claim. The estimated cost to taxpayers is approximately $29,000 for processing each claimant.
There was a delay by the Conservative government in filling vacancies at the Immigration and Refugee Board which negatively affected the performance of the board. The minister's 2009-10 report on planning and priorities states that the shortfall in decision makers has contributed to the growth of the pending case inventory and to increased average of processing times. In addition, the Auditor General, in the March 2009 report of the Auditor General of Canada, chapter two, asserts her concern for the need to timely and efficiently appoint and reappoint decision makers to the IRB.
These facts and others made the case for comprehensive refugee reform very obvious and an absolute priority. Although reform of the refugee system is needed, we must ensure that it is fair, efficient and just. While the reform package incorporates some Liberal recommendations such as the refugee appeal division, we have to do due diligence on the bill. After all, there are concerns about what has occurred in the past four years, such as slow processing times and longer wait periods for persons claiming refugee status so, caution is in fact warranted.
Therefore, before any refugee reform legislation is implemented, we will ensure that it meets our standards of procedural fairness, that it is just, fast and efficient and that it does not undermine the trust many people place in our system. Obviously, as the minister alluded to, Canadians cannot afford further poorly implemented band-aid solutions like the imposition of visas on individuals from countries such as Mexico and the Czech Republic as happened last summer. This is the reason we will seek assurances that this reform package is going to meet the highest standard of public policy-making.
In 2004, the former Liberal government implemented changes to the appointment process for the Immigration and Refugee Board. Changes included an advisory panel made up of lawyers, academics and others involved in the refugee process which screened all applicants for the IRB. When the present government came to power, unfortunately it delayed appointments. Everyone knows the result of that has been a ballooning refugee backlog. This is what the bill is also trying to address.
In addition to the growing backlog of applications, there has been concern expressed about the integrity of our system. As I said earlier, recent spikes in claims from certain countries have resulted in an ad hoc use of visa restriction to constrict application volumes. As mentioned earlier, significant examples of this occurred last summer when in response to a spike in claims from Mexico and the Czech Republic, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration imposed visa restrictions on both countries. When we impose visa restrictions, we can jeopardize or strain relationships with countries, in the case of Mexico with one of our North American economic partners. In the case of the Czech Republic, there were also bad feelings created in the European Union as a result.
The government's justification for the bill is focused on streamlining the system to deal with the growing application backlog, providing further flexibility to the minister to deal with the unusual spikes in refugee claims from democratic source countries and streamlining the removal process for unsuccessful applicants.
The bill proposes changes to almost every stage of the in-Canada process. Currently, people with successful claims are waiting an average of 19 months for a decision and it takes an average of four or five years to process and remove an unsuccessful claimant.
Information is currently gathered within 28 days through a personal information form. Under this bill, personal information would be gathered within eight days of a claim through an interview process. It is hoped that this will avoid delays related to incomplete forms and late paperwork. However, there have been significant concerns that this timeline is unrealistic and will result in claimants being unable to get appropriate counsel.
Possible changes around timelines and appropriate legal aid protection should be considered. We cannot afford to have a system where legal counsel is effectively denied and where a poor decision will lead perhaps to a number of time-consuming adjournments.
In the current system, a first-level decision is made by a governor in council appointee within about 18 months. Under the new process, the first-level decision would be made by an IRB public servant within about 60 days. Other countries that have public servant first-level decision makers tend to have higher rates of successful appeals. This can make the process less efficient overall and undermine trust in the refugee determination system.
For instance, the UNHCR has expressed concerns that administrative decision makers in the United Kingdom are inadequately trained and are not producing quality credibility assessments at hearings. Although CIC officials claim that the decision makers in the new system would be senior level and would be highly trained, there is no guarantee of that in this package. The fact that decision makers are housed in the independent IRB may alleviate some concerns regarding their independence, but close assessment of their qualifications, training and hiring processes will be required.
Concerns have also been raised about the 60 day timeline, whether it is realistic and whether it will limit a claimant's ability to obtain representation and compile a proper case within this timeline. Review of these timelines and possible further legal aid support will be required.
There is currently no appeal within the IRB and review is left to the Federal Court. It should be noted that the concept of a refugee appeals division was part of the initial Liberal plan for the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
The bill would create a new refugee appeals division, RAD, staffed by governor in council appointees to review negative first-level decisions. The target for the appeal process in this case would be within four months. Most of the appeals would be paper based, but there would be an opportunity for an oral hearing and the introduction of new evidence that was not available at the time of the first hearing.
In the United Kingdom, 89% of the initial 2007 decisions were appealed and 23% of those initial refusals were overturned. This has led to a huge court backlog of 450,000 cases as of 2008 in the United Kingdom, which may take between 10 to 18 years to resolve. By comparison, in Canada only 1% of asylum appeals are currently successful.
Guidelines are expected to clearly set out when an oral hearing is necessary and when an appeal should proceed in writing. The adjudicator's decision to proceed in writing or not would create an additional administrative decision that could be appealed to the Federal Court.
The primary concern about the introduction of the RAD would be to ensure that the first-level decision is conducted in a way that protects procedural fairness and fundamental justice sufficiently to avoid the RAD becoming another bottleneck in the process.
The system does not currently include a designated country of origin list. The bill would provide the minister with discretion to create designated countries of origin. This is one of the most contentious proposed changes.
The UNHCR has already expressed concern that any such process must take into account the gender and sexual orientation persecution issues in many democratic countries. This may also create diplomatic problems as countries lobby to be put on the list or may be insulted that they have been left off.
UNHCR has previously indicated that safe country of origin practices are acceptable as a procedural tool provided we have safeguards in place. The bill would remove access to the RAD for individuals from designated countries of origin. However, claimants can still have a negative decision reviewed by the Federal Court.
There are still unanswered questions about the process for adding countries to the designated country of origin list. Although we have been assured that this will be used as a last resort to avoid the imposition of visas in countries in good human rights records, issues of fairness and fundamental justice will have to be addressed.
Legal experts are pointing to a major difference between Canada's proposed legislation and that of European countries. The word “safe” does not appear anywhere in the relevant section of Bill C-11. This omission, they say, places too much legal discretion in the hands of the minister and raises serious questions about the law's potential use. It may be appropriate to look at the process by which countries are designated and incorporates some level of independence for selection or parliamentary oversight through amendments.
Currently a claimant has access to multiple appeal processes, including the Federal Court, after each additional rejection. The bill would restrict access to other avenues of appeal for one year following the last negative decision. That means that once the IRB, or RAD, if triggered, has rendered its decision, post decision processes will be barred for one year to allow for removal within that year. Applicants would retain the ability to appeal to the Federal Court. For the information of members, barred avenues include pre-removal risk assessment, section 25, a humanitarian and compassionate grounds application, applications for temporary residence and administrative deferrals of removal.
There would also be a ban on concurrent applications under the refugee protection system and under section 25 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Prior to the first level decision, applicants in the refugee system would be required to select which stream they would like to pursue. Unsuccessful refugee applicants would be banned from section 25 applications for one year from their final IRB determination. After one year from the final IRB decision, the section 25 avenue would again be reopened or open to the applicant. Any time bars to accessing pre-removal assessment or humanitarian and compassionate applications would still need to be reasonable and procedurally fair, as the life, freedom and security of the applicant could be at stake pending the outcome of these decisions.
The humanitarian and compassionate review process operates as an avenue of last resort for persons who do not fit into any of the categories in IRPA to appeal directly to the minister. Limiting access to humanitarian and compassionate grounds could lead to people being deported in the face of humanitarian injustices and safeguards. This will require close review. This issue will require further study to assess the practicality of closing all these avenues of recourse.
The reform package proposes $540.7 million over five years and $85.4 million in ongoing funding. The $540 million is broken down into $324 million over five years for the development of the new refugee system, $126 million to address the backlog and $90 over five years to increase the number of refugees resettled from abroad.
The concern we have, and I have stated this to the minister, is that these funds were not set out in budget 2010 and the Conservatives told us program spending was frozen for the next several years. The minister has stated that these funds are in the fiscal framework, so it will have to be determined what will be cut to take into account these new expenditures. For instance, according to budget 2010, CBSA was actually identified as a source of savings of $54 million in 2011 and $58.4 million in 2012-13 through streamlining and cuts, but had been allocated $142 million in new money under this plan. Questions about transparency and accountability of funding are of concern. We want to ensure that the investment Canadian taxpayers make actually goes where it is supposed to go.
There has been a wide variety of reaction to the tabling of Bill C-11 and even prior to the introduction of the bill. For example, the UN High Commissioner was concerned prior to the introduction of the bill about the countries of origin idea. He stated that the new measures must recognize such things as “sexual preference”, are “grounds for persecution even in democracies”. He also noted other potential issues about gender.
Another individual, Professor Peter Showler, notes that the requirement that the first hearing take place within 60 days after a very quick interview is too quick and impractical. It is impractical in the sense that the refugee will not be able to find a lawyer, inform the lawyer, let the lawyer gather the evidence and present that evidence at the hearing. If that first hearing is not a good hearing, the entire system will unravel fairly quickly. He suggests that 120 days would be a more realistic time frame.
Lastly, the Canadian Council of Refugees does not agree with any of the major changes in the bill, stating that the introduction of a list of “safe countries of origin” is a mistake and has basically criticized the entire approach.
The Liberal Party and the Auditor General of Canada have noted the need to reform the refugee system for a while now. We must address some of the flaws that I have stated, however, there are some positive steps in this bill regarding needed refugee reform.
We must examine the effectiveness and fairness of the timelines for the first decisions so that they are realistic and ensure that the refugees are adequately represented. Refugees may face logistical challenges in acquiring the necessary materials to support their cases due to poor infrastructure in source countries or translation requirements. We must ensure the fundamental justice of vulnerable people involved in the system and ensure a flawed first-level process does not result in a backed up system at the appeal level, like they are struggling with in other jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom. It is important that we ensure that all claimants have equal and fair access to the appropriate legal representation.
In the case of the quality of first level decision-makers, it is important that the government provide more specific details about the independence and qualification of the proposed first line decision-makers.
Clause 12 of Bill C-11 would give the minister the authority to designate a country, or part of a country, or class of nationals of a country, according to criteria to be established by regulation. Persons from designated areas of classes may not appeal negative refugee protection decisions to the Refugee Appeal Division. Nor may the minister appeal cases involving these people. Instead applicants and the minister would need to seek leave to appeal the first level decision from the federal court. The designated authority of origin clause may be problematic in its design, as it may present concerns of transparency and accountability.
Several lawyers and academics have raised concerns about the specific wording of the provision in Bill C-11, which refers to “designated countries of origin” rather than “safe countries of origin”. They argue that the current wording provides the minister with too much discretion in designating countries and that it is susceptible to politicization.
Bill C-11 would make several changes to the humanitarian and compassionate grounds for foreign nationals in Canada. For instance, according to subclause 4(1), the minister may not examine requests to remaining Canada's permanent residents on humanitarian and compassionate grounds if less than 12 months have passed since the final negative IRB decision.
It is obvious that we have presented a credible case for changes to a number of elements of Bill C-11. As Canadians, we take pride in the fact that our country offers a safe haven to so many who are victims of fear, discrimination or persecution in their home countries. Throughout this parliamentary debate, our focus must be on creating the best possible refugee system.