OTTAWA—The federal government is overhauling Canada’s overloaded and “broken” refugee system to put questionable refugee claimants on a fast-track back to their homelands.
But immigration experts are sounding the alarm, warning that legitimate refugees risk being tossed out, too, in the government’s rush to process applications and cut a backlog of 42,000 people.
And they say the changes put too much power in the hands of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney to decide which countries are deemed safe or not around the globe.
Kenney tabled legislation Thursday meant to streamline the refugee process and in particular target a growing number of “bogus” claimants from Europe.
“To be blunt, Canada’s asylum system is broken,” Kenney said.
“The growing number of bogus claims from European Union democracies is only exacerbating the problem. Too many tax dollars are spent on people who do not need our protection,” he told a news conference Thursday.
These latest reforms comes less than two years after the Conservatives did an overhaul of the refugee system, changes that Kenney lauded back then as a “win-win.”
But now the Conservatives are using their majority muscle to roll back concessions made at that time under pressure from the opposition parties in the minority Parliament.
Kenney denied that he was playing a “political game,” and said instead that the government needed new tools to rebuff the influx of claims from Europe.
“We have a serious problem. We are facing a large wave of unfounded asylum claims coming from the European Union in particular,” Kenney said.
Under the changes, Canada will create a list of safe countries of origin, countries considered capable of providing state protection to its citizens.
Refugees from those countries will be fast-tracked through the process — in just 45 days, down from 1,000 days now — with a speedy hearing and they’ll be denied recourse to appeal a negative decision to the refugee appeal division.
And while they’ll be able to still appeal a denial to the Federal Court, no longer will they remain in Canada during that legal process.
“We are sending a message today,” Kenney said. “If you do not need Canada’s protection, we will give you access to our fair asylum system quickly and then send you home quickly.
“You will not be allowed to remain in Canada for years using endless appeals at the expense of Canadian taxpayers.”
Canada now gets more refugee applicants from Europe than Asia and Africa. In the crosshairs are refugee applicants from countries in Europe, notably Hungary, which immigration officials argue are democratic and are seen to have robust justice systems.
The package of changes also bundles in the Tories’ previous human smuggling bill, with one key change — minors under the age of 16 caught up in a smuggling operation will not be kept in detention.
As well, the government wants to require visa applicants to provide biometric data — fingerprints and a digital photograph — moves that Kenney said would “substantially improve immigration security.”
NDP MP Don Davies condemned the changes to the refugee system, calling it a “serious step backwards” from the legislation proposed in 2010.
“This bill once again puts too much power in the hands of the minister,” said Davies, noting that Kenney will have the “sole” power to deem which countries safe or not.
“You will see people who are bona fide refugees be returned to countries where they face persecution, maybe even death,” Davies said.
Former Immigration and Refugee Board chair Peter Showler called the new bill “bad news,” saying that the notion of declaring a country “safe” is dangerous because that safety is not necessarily for everyone.
He said the 2010 legislation required that independent human rights experts had to be consulted to ensure the minister didn’t “arbitrarily” designate a country as safe or not.
“This new bill removes those protections. There is a danger that countries will be designated by the minister for political expediency rather than legitimate protection concerns,” said Showler, now a University of Ottawa law professor.
Lorne Waldman, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said lawyers, advocates and asylum seekers themselves appreciate a fast refugee determination system, but not at the expense of fairness.
He said measures in the 2010 legislation to ensure a “fair and efficient” system have been removed. The refugee lawyers’ association does not rule out any legal challenge to the changes.
While many countries may seem “safe,” there can be serious problems of persecution, discrimination and violence against victims of domestic abuse, ethnic minorities or gays and lesbians, whom the state may fail to protect, said Rob Shropshire, acting executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“The designation of a safe country is at the sole discretion of the immigration minister. It makes it dangerously vulnerable to political considerations, rather than ensuring a fair and independent decision about who is a refugee,” said Shropshire.