On Feb.16, the federal government announced new legislation that will change Canada's refugee determination system – and according to Church people who work directly with refugees – not for the better.
Do the changes proposed by Bill C-31 increase the fairness and efficiency of the system? Or do these new measures re-victimize refugees in their legitimate search for security and freedom?
The new bill would give the minister of immigration (rather than the currently established expert committee) the ability to designate certain countries where refugee claimants would be fast-tracked through the system. This may create a two-tier system where a case is no longer decided on its own merits, but on the applicant's country of origin.
CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING
Since the minister would have no need to justify his designations, critics argue that the process runs the risk of undue politicization.
New measures undertaken to fast-track decisions could prove to be unfair. Strict, shortened timelines could work against those cases where the applicant has been traumatized through violence or torture, and where trusting relationships with attorneys and Canadian officials have yet to be established.
The government plans to re-introduce the most controversial elements of its previously unsuccessful anti-human smuggling legislation. Bill C-31 would allow detention of some refugee claimants for an entire year (something that is sure to be quickly challenged in Canadian courts).
As well, refugee claimants arriving in Canada could be prevented from bringing their family members to Canada, and to travel abroad, for five years.
Jailing a refugee claimant for a year could cost $70,000 per person, and it may not serve as a deterrent. Someone fleeing for their life or to protect their family will grasp at any chance of escape, including perhaps paying smugglers for assistance to safety.
The legislation would also allow the government to revoke permanent residence status from those to whom it has been granted. Making such status "conditional" will further increase the instability of newcomers to our country.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 15.5 million refugees in the world – 80 per cent of whom live in lesser developed countries, not the rich North. Canada accepted less than 19,000 in 2010, about 40 per cent of those who claimed refugee status here. These few that are allowed to stay are a small fraction of those that need refuge and security.
Loly Rico is the coordinator of the FCJ Refugee Centre, a project of the Sisters Faithful Companions of Jesus, in Toronto.
She says, "The new Bill C-31 is going to impact the most vulnerable - women and children and the LGBT community. Some of the designated countries that are perceived as "democratic" don't have laws on gender equity, criminalization of violence against women or laws protecting sexual minority groups.
"Additionally, temporary residency will impact the integration of refugees in Canada as they won't feel that they belong. This is destroying the multicultural tapestry of Canada - the basis for the diversity of our population."
Linh Le is the coordinator of Carty House, an Ottawa residence for newcomer women which was opened by the sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame. She does not mince words when asked her opinion of Bill C-31.
"The reality of Bill C-31, along with all of its complex legality and arbitrariness, has yet to fully dawn on the refugee women at Carty House. . . .
"Is there an easy way to tell a group of women who have gone through tremendous oppression, discrimination, and hardship, that everything they have fought for long and hard in hope of obtaining a peaceful dignified life, might be taken away from them?
"There isn't one – just as there isn't an easy way of determining with any certainty if a person is a refugee until she has been given a chance to share her story before an impartial decision maker.
"Minister Jason Kenney doesn't know these women, but he continues to vilify them as bogus. He has never and will never hear their stories; and yet he has the ability to swiftly take away their rights, to destroy their lives, the lives of their children, and to further perpetuate the marginalization of displaced women around the world."
In November 2010, the Catholic bishops, in a letter to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, criticized several aspects of these same proposals, especially those directed to stem human trafficking, "requesting that you reconsider the clauses . . . that penalize refugees."
Their voice is needed again.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)