It’s rare and refreshing to see a member of Stephen Harper’s cabinet offer to amend a punitive piece of legislation.
“We have listened to parliamentarians on Bill C-31 (which overhauls Canada’s refugee system) and as a result we have a stronger bill,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney told fellow MPs. “The government is open to reasonable suggestions.”
The changes he is proposing won’t satisfy refugee advocates, human rights activists or the opposition parties. But they would alleviate one of the harshest provisions of the legislation.
The original version of the bill, tabled in February, said asylum seekers who are part of “mass arrivals” would face mandatory detention for 12 months with no review. The amended version would require an initial review within 14 days, a second review six months later.
This is a big improvement, even if its principal purpose is to reduce the government’s exposure to lawsuits. (Several groups were planning constitutional challenges alleging that Kenney violated the Charter of Rights, which guarantees everyone “the right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned.”) It would curtail the government’s power to detain refugee claimants who pose no security threat.
The minister also promised to tighten up the bill’s wording to make clear that refugees accepted years ago would not be retroactively deported to their homelands if conditions there improved. Kenney said this was never his intention, but his bill did leave open the possibility.
The minister’s third adjustment was unfair, but transitory. The government would bar failed refugee claimants from applying for humanitarian consideration for 12 months, effective the day the bill is passed. This would deprive those in the system of the time they’d built up.
The most disappointing aspect of Kenney’s pullback was how limited it was. He did not change the measure that would prevent successful refugee claims who were part of a “mass arrival” from bringing over their children for five years. He did not define mass arrival (although the bill was prompted by the landing of two boatloads of Tamil asylum seekers in 2009 and 2010). And he did not provide any clarity on how the government will designate “safe countries” to which asylum seekers can be sent back promptly with no right of appeal.
On balance, Kenney’s concessions will make the refugee bill better. But his openness, if it persists, could make the entire immigration system better.