Election 2011 Canadian Refugee Policy: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Internationally, Canada has what many consider to be one of the better refugee systems in the world. However, this comparative position does not paint a full picture. There is wide consensus that Canada’s refugee policy has problems. However there is great divergence on exactly what those problems are and how best to respond.

For the last several years, changes to a refugee system described as ‘broken’  have been an important priority. With the current election and the potential changes it could bring, what better time to consider what all these ‘reforms’ have meant for refugee policy – and refugees – in Canada?

Refugee Policy in 2010: What did it look like?

In 2010, the number of refugees permitted to stay in Canada was 24,000, down from 32,000 in 2006. The Safe Third Country Agreement, supposedly meant to more efficiently manage the flow of refugees across the Canadian-American border, has actually led to an increase in human smuggling. The Agreement has also contributed to a lower number of individuals being allowed into Canada to seek asylum, despite the concerns that certain nationalities will not receive a fair hearing in the United States.

The Safe Third Country Agreement allows border officials from each country to refuse entry to individuals entering from Canada or the US seeking to make a refugee claim, based on the assumption that the claimants were already in a safe country.

A new report released by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on asylum seekers in industrialized nations found that the number of claimants seeking asylum in Canada was down 30% from 2009, a statistic “linked to a lower number of Mexican and Czech asylum-seekers.” These lower numbers have been attributed to the imposition of visas in 2009 on people attempting to visit from those countries – one method people were using to escape persecution. However, some have also speculated that this decrease is related to Minister Kenney’s many disparaging comments about ‘bogus’ Mexican and Czech refugees and their impact on judges. And the use of this rhetoric is anything but isolated. Observers have increasingly commented on the upswing in an anti-refugee discourse that would seem to indicate that we are about to be overrun by a tide of migrants taking advantage of a system that is far too lax.

Obviously a problem, but how to fix it?

In November, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Kenney introduced Bill C-49, Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act.

C-49 includes (among other things):

  • A stipulation that any refugee designated as an “irregular arrival” (applicable to almost all refugees) would be given a mandatory sentence of one year in detention with no hope for review.
  • An amended definition of human smuggling along with harsher punishments which would not differentiate between smugglers motivated by humanitarian vs. monetary concerns.
  • Bars on certain immigration applications, such as permanent residency status or family reunification, for a certain period of time (up to 5 years) after release from detention.

Although proponents of the bill claimed it would help reduce the use of human smugglers, critics argued it would simply hurt those our refugee system is meant to protect. Regardless, with Minister Kenney promising to make human smuggling an election issue, C-49 is unlikely to go away, even though it is officially dead on the floor of the House because of the election.

Minister Kenney also recently announced a proposal to cancel the Source Country Program, which allows people suffering or fearing persecution to apply for refugee status from within their country of origin (normally to be considered a refugee someone must be outside their country of origin). Currently, the Source Country Program includes a list of six countries: Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, Sudan, El Salvador and Sierra Leone. Although the Minister paints this as necessary to improving efficiency, the CCR has voiced concern, saying “They are proposing to close one of the few options Canada has which allows people who face persecution to avoid smugglers.”

On March 19, Citizenship and Immigration Canada went on to announce further proposals for change, suggesting criteria for determining the composition of the ‘Safe Country of Origin’ list mandated by 2010 refugee legislation, Bill C-11.

The ‘Safe Country of Origin’ list means:

  • Countries on this list are considered unlikely to produce refugees,
  • Asylum seekers from those places will have their claims and appeals processed at a much faster rate (a rate some say will come at the expense of fairness),
  • Countries would be determined based on their human rights records and current human rights situation.

While announced as a way to improve efficiency, it is suggested that the criteria could easily politicize the refugee system due to the level of control the Minister would have over the list. The Minister would be required to consult with an expert panel (Minister-appointed) including at least two non-governmental human rights experts and would not be able to designate a country ‘safe’ without a panel recommendation supporting this decision. However, no indication has been given of its overall size (or who would supplement the rest of the panel) leaving the weight of the non-governmental experts’ opinions ambiguous.

Critics further point out that a panel appointed by an elected official is less likely to disagree with that official when advising them than if it were to be appointed independently. Concerns have been raised about how countries could get an honest assessment with the Minister’s mind apparently already made up, as in the cases of Mexico and the Czech Republic in which the Minister has publicly questioned the validity of refugee claims from those countries.

What does this say about Canada?

These issues, and others, indeed indicate that there is a serious problem with Canada’s refugee system. However, one must ask if the greater problem here is a ‘broken’ system, or if it is reforms that are increasingly leaving behind humanitarian concerns.

Canada’s refugee system does indeed need help. There is much that requires attention. However, the human consequences of proposed changes should not be ignored in the name of efficiency.
One journalist recently commented that “refugee policy and practice define a country’s soul like few other government actions.” If that is indeed the case then in the coming election Canadians should think long and hard about what the state of Canada’s soul will be if some of these changes are carried out.

Questions for Candidates:

What will your party do to ensure Canada’s refugee system is fair, transparent and accountable?

What will your party do to ensure that Canada lives up to its international human rights obligations to refugees?

Links for more information:

CPJ’s “Fast at the Expense of Fair? Restructuring Canada’s Refugee System” 

CPJ’s “Time for a New Political Strategy?

Canadian Council for Refugees