Reforming Canada’s refugee policies: Consultation required!

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Canada’s refugee system is one of the slowest in the world with a backlog of over 60,000 and a wait time of at least 19 months for a first hearing. This is coupled with an Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) that lacks sufficient resources, and a disorganized and drawn out appeal process. Clearly, reform is desperately needed. The question is, what kind of reform?

In March, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney proposed major changes, including 60 day wait times for hearings, the development of a “safe country of origin” list, and a new Refugee Appeal Division, only available to claimants from countries considered to be “unsafe”.

Opposition MPs and refugee advocates spoke out immediately. They were concerned that wait times were now much too short, not leaving enough time to prepare and gather documentation. And more importantly, they were concerned that the government was proposing a two-tier system, where applicants would be judged based on their country of origin and not on an individual basis.

Originally Minister Kenney was determined to pass the bill without amendments, threatening to pull the bill if changes were made. But after three months of confrontation mixed with negotiation, the government and opposition parties eventually had to work together. In the end, all parties claimed to be satisfied with the amendments and voted to pass the bill on June 15, 2010.

Legislation improved, but concerns remain

Many of the amendments were intended to address issues of equality. The word “safe” was changed to “designated” for the “safe country of origin” list, and more importantly, the Refugee Appeal Division will now be available for all claimants. The deadline for a first hearing was also increased from 60 to 90 days for “non-designated” countries.

The bill is expected to pass easily in the Senate, receive Royal Assent by July, and demonstrates how parties can cooperate to amend legislation.

However, it remains a concern that public interactions of the government with opposition MPs and major refugee organizations only occurred in the amendment process, and not in the creation of legislation. For months before introducing the bill, Minister Kenney made it clear that major reforms were coming but no consultations were held.

The MPs were able to reach a deal that will move reforms forward, but many refugee organizations are still not completely satisfied with the Bill.

The access of all applicants to the Refugee Appeal Division is a step in the right direction, as well as the extension of deadlines for hearings, but applicants are still going to be classified based on country of origin. Changing the word “safe” to “designated” does not change that.

In addition, the rhetoric coming from Minister Kenney still includes claims of “bogus refugees” from these “designated” countries clogging the system. This was his main rationale for developing lists of countries in the first place, and the rhetoric has not changed.

Sensitive policies require public debate

Immigration policies, especially involving refugees, are extremely complicated, require much sensitivity, and directly impact the lives and circumstances of people. As a result, emotions often run high when dealing with these issues.

This is exactly why the public, including refugee advocacy organizations, policy think tanks, and Canadians in general, needed to be involved from the beginning,. Consultation takes time and brings in multiple perspectives, but it also allows for more informed and inclusive decisions.

Finding a balance between fast and fair while bringing in various perspectives is no easy task, say former Immigration Ministers Elinor Caplan (Liberal, 1999-2002) and Flora MacDonald (Progressive Conservative, 1984-1986). In May they wrote in the Ottawa Citizen that there are no easy solutions when it comes to refugee policy. “Refugee protection must take account of and respond to human suffering, to human aspirations and to human determination… Many assume that there must be a system that would readily and quickly identify those who met the definition of a refugee and those who do not. But it is not so simple.”

Caplan and MacDonald say public debate and discussion is the best way to address the myths and misunderstandings that often arise when discussing refugee policy. In this case, the debate and discussion did occur while making the amendments, but not in the original drafting. NGOs and Opposition MPs only were able to debate what was already presented in writing.

Also, if consultations had taken place beforehand, the government could have taken advantage of existing proposals. For example, Peter Showler, former director of the IRB and currently associated with the Maytree Foundation, developed a refugee proposal last fall, Fast, Fair and Final. Recognizing that the system is much too slow, Showler emphasized the importance of a good first decision made by qualified personnel, a fair and reliable appeal process, and quick removal of rejected applicants.

In the end, refugee advocacy organizations like the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Maytree Foundation, and others supported the legislation and urged all MPs to vote in favour, recognizing the need for reform. But many are not entirely happy with this new direction.

Public justice calls for the government to be accountable to the people, ensure involvement in the decision making process, and develop policies that are inclusive. If the government had taken the time for consultation, the concerns of refugee advocacy groups would have been very clear. The public was involved in this process – eventually – but working with what was already written, not coordinating and drafting plans for this very important issue, together.

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