With a majority, Conservatives finally show hand on refugee reform
// Mike Conway

Canadians take great pride in the generosity and compassion of our immigration and refugee programs. But they have no tolerance for those who abuse our generosity and seek to take unfair advantage of our country,” said Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism. He was speaking about the government’s motivation for the proposed Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act. This act is the third version of a hotly-debated bill that the Conservative government has been trying to pass since March of 2010.

The newest version proposes changes that build on reforms to the asylum system passed in June 2010 as part of another piece of legislation, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. The changes are being made because, according to Jason Kenney, “it has become clear that there are gaps in the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and we need stronger measures.”

Kenney explains one such gap: “Canada receives more refugee claims from Europe than from Africa or Asia. Last year alone, 23 per cent of all refugee claims made in Canada were made by nationals from the EU. That’s up from 14 per cent the previous year. This growing trend threatens the integrity of our immigration system.”

Minister Kenney believes that the new bill will shorten processing times for refugee claimants, while also saving money for Canadian tax payers. Under the new bill, refugee claimants from countries that Kenney chooses as “safe” will take 45 days to process, compared to 171 days under the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. Kenney explains, “Too many tax dollars are spent on bogus refugees. We need to send a message to those who would abuse Canada’s generous asylum system that if you are not in need of protection, you will be sent home quickly.”

Kenney continues, “To maintain the support of Canadians for our generous immigration and refugee systems, we must demonstrate that Canada has a fair, well-managed system that does not tolerate queue-jumping.”

Despite the good intentions of Bill C-31, many politicians expressed concerns and criticism of the new bill. New Democratic Party MP Alexandre Boulerice of Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie, QC, gave a speech in the House of Commons on Mar. 15 of this year, in which he argued that Bill C-31 has misleading language that negatively affects honest refugee claimants. “Overall, the bill targets refugees, not human smugglers. The language, the rhetoric, says it is targeting smugglers, but in fact the people who will really be affected are refugees. The minister is aiming at the wrong target. Certainly, the bill is well-intentioned. The good intentions are there, but the cure it seeks to apply is worse than the disease.”

NDP MP, Ms. Rathika Sitsabaiesan, for Scarborough—Rouge River, Ontario, said during parliamentary debate that “the bill would set out to dismantle our immigration system, damaging it legally, socially, morally, and internationally. I find the omnibus nature of the bill very disturbing.”

Moreover, both Sitsabaiesan and Boulerice raised similar objections about the portion of Bill C-31 that would allow the holding of some refugees in detention without review for up to 12 months during an identification process, as this would, according to them, constitute a violation of the Canadian Charter of Human Rights, and various international treaties.

Dubbed the “Refugee Exclusion Act” by critics, Bill C-31 is opposed by many organizations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Locally, No One Is Illegal (NOII), a grassroots advocacy group for immigration and refugee reform, has expressed its opposition to the legislation. “The Tories are quietly pushing through the ‘Refugee Exclusion Act’, Bill C-31, which creates a discriminatory two-tier refugee protection system based on nationality, mandates jail time for many asylum seekers, and revokes permanent residency from many people already granted refugee status,” says Syed Hussan in a Mar. 27 press release from No One Is Illegal. “This proposed extremist and exclusionary law will have significant impacts by pushing the minimalist Canadian refugee policy back decades, and the Tories are going to paint anyone that opposes it as extremists.”

Furthermore, opposition parties hold issue with the fact that Bill C-31 is a drastic change to the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, which was created under the previous minority government with the approval of all parties. However, any concessions that the Conservatives made at that time are no longer necessary, due to their parliamentary majority.

//Mike Conway, writer

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