Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s new refugee law lacks balance


Since the Conservatives took power six years ago, fewer of the immigrants arriving in Canada are coming as refugees. As a share of all newcomers, refugees have gone down – from 13.7 per cent to 9.2 per cent.
Yet Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says Ottawa must to do more crack down on “bogus refugees” who are clogging up the system and costing taxpayers too much money.
He is proposing legislation that would rapidly deport two types of refugee claimants: those who come to Canada as part of a part of an “irregular arrival” (any vehicle or network suspected of smuggling people) and those who come from countries he considers safe (such as Hungary).
The minister tried this before. In March 2010, he brought in a bill almost identical to the one introduced last week. It would have done a relatively good job of filtering out would-be refugees who were not fleeing persecution or seeking asylum from violence, torture or cruel treatment. It would also have served as a deterrent to fraudsters hoping to manipulate Canada’s refugee system. But it contained too few safeguards for applicants rejected after a cursory hearing.
The opposition parties joined forces to seek a more balanced bill and Kenney, to his credit, listened. He agreed to amend his bill and came up with a compromise called the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. It gave rejected claimants the right to appeal to a new tribunal with knowledgeable adjudicators. It also created a committee to advise the government on the list of “safe countries” that Kenney was proposing.
The minister hailed the compromise as a “win-win.” He told Parliament the amendments strengthened his original bill. The law was scheduled to take effect on June 29.
But last week he introduced a third version, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act. Both of the safeguards in the previous bill are gone.
Under the new bill, Kenney alone will designate “safe countries.” Asylum seekers from those countries will have no right to appeal to the refugee tribunal. And refugee claimants who arrive by way of suspected human smugglers will face mandatory detention while their identity and admissibility are investigated. They will have no right to appeal a negative decision.
The legislation contains one new provision. It would permit authorities to collect biometric data (fingerprints and photographs) from those entering Canada on a visitor’s visa, work visa or study visa.
These changes are necessary, Kenney said, because “it has become clear that there are gaps in the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and we need stronger measures that are closer to the original bill.”
As evidence he pointed to a recent spike in refugee claims from Eastern Europe (primarily Roma people from Hungary) that cost Ottawa almost $170 million last year. There was a similar surge of asylum seekers from Mexico in 2009. But there is a way to deal with this: Require travelers from problematic countries to obtain a temporary resident visa before coming to Canada.
On the positive side, Kenney’s latest reform plan would reduce the current backlog of 42,000 refugee claims; cut the processing time for asylum seekers from countries” to 45 days (from 171 days under Balanced Refugee Reform Act); and save money.
On the negative side, it has no appeal mechanism and it gives the minister power without accountability.
Overall, it’s a step backward from the compromise reached 20 months ago.
Kenney doesn’t have to compromise now. With a parliamentary majority, the Conservatives can enact whatever they want. They don’t have to listen to the opposition parties or take into account the concerns of refugee groups, lawyers, academics or human rights activists.
It is regrettable the minister has decided to go it alone. He had a better bill when he worked with his critics.