Tobi Cohen, Postmedia News
OTTAWA — The federal government is conceding on a number of opposition and stakeholder criticisms of proposed legislation aimed at cracking down on bogus refugee claimants — but those opposed to the bill argue it hasn’t backed down enough.
Just before a Commons committee sat down to review Bill C-31 clause-by-clause Wednesday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney indicated the government would agree to amend provisions in the Protecting Canada’s Immigration Act that call for “irregular arrivals” who come to Canada en masse, possibly as part of human-smuggling operations, to be subject to automatic detention for up to a year without a review of their case.
Critics have argued the detention provisions, among others, are inhumane and a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other international treaties.
Under the amendment, those individuals would be guaranteed an initial review within 14 days and another review within six months.
“We believe this strikes the right balance,” Kenney said upon emerging from a caucus meeting.
“It ensures there will be a review of detention by the independent quasi-judicial Immigration and Refugee Board. It also ensures that we have enough time to truly identify smuggled migrants and ensure that they do not constitute a security risk.”
The government also has agreed to clarify that smuggled migrants who are deemed bona fide refugees will not face detention and it will amend certain language in the bill that some fear could have the unintended consequence of revoking a refugee’s permanent residence due to improved circumstances in their country of origin.
‘The bill concentrates power in the hands of the minister while it punishes refugees’ — NDP
“Some opposition members have raised unreasonable fear amongst refugees that the provision for cessation of protected status and revocation of (permanent residency) in bill C-31 will be applied arbitrarily and create uncertainty for bona fide refugees who have obtained (permanent residency) in Canada,” Kenney said.
“Let me be clear. It’s never been our intention to do that.”
In a bid to prevent rejected asylum claimants from “going underground” to avoid deportation pending a pre-removal risk assessment, Kenney said the government would also amend the bill to push the bar on access to such assessments back to three years as opposed to one.
NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims said she welcomes “any move by the minister to make improvements to the legislation,” but that the ones he’s outlined don’t “go far enough to address the fundamental flaws in the bill.
“The bill concentrates power in the hands of the minister while it punishes refugees and won’t address the problem of human smuggling,” she said at a news conference. She said the NDP wants the government to “abandon” the costly bill and warned it would result in numerous legal challenges and force the government to “go back to the drawing board.”
Joined by legal experts and a representative of the Roma community, which is being targeted in the legislation, Sims noted the NDP planned to put forward more than 20 amendments at committee before the process ends at midnight Thursday. Most of them, however, are likely to be rejected by the committee, which is dominated by Tories.
She added she’d ultimately like the government to maintain its commitment to the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, which was passed with much fanfare during the last Parliament after the then-minority Conservatives reached a consensus with the opposition. The new bill essentially reintroduces elements that were left out in a bid to get it passed and critics have slammed the Tories for using their majority muscle to go back on their word.
Kenney is keen on getting his omnibus bill passed before June 27 when the predecessor legislation is set to take effect. He said the government isn’t “prepared operationally” to implement the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, which would be rendered null and void once the new bill is passed.
Among other things, the omnibus bill seeks to quickly deport “bogus” refugee claimants from countries deemed “safe” within 45 days instead of the 1,000 days it currently takes or the 171 days it would take under the Balanced Refugee Reform Act.
The government has argued the move would assist in dealing with a huge spike in European claims, the bulk of them by Hungary’s Roma population. Last year, the number of claims from Hungary nearly doubled to 4,409 — though officials say most were withdrawn, abandoned or rejected.
Claimants from safe countries would be barred from appealing a negative decision to the new Refugee Appeal Division and the bill would eliminate a provision that called for a committee of experts to decide which countries would be placed on the safe list. Under the new bill, that decision would rest with the minister.
According to the bill, those who entered Canada by way of illegal smugglers also would be barred from seeking permanent residency or sponsoring a loved one for five years and certain visa holders would be required to turn over biometric data.