Citizens for Public Justice joins Canadians across the country in celebrating Refugee Rights Day on Saturday, April 4.
Canada celebrates Refugee Rights Day annually on April 4th in recognition of the Supreme Court of Canada’s historic 1985 decision in Singh v. Minister of Employment and Immigration also simply known as the Singh decision. To understand why it was named so, a brief background is necessary.
Between 1977 and 1981, six Indian citizens and a Guyanese citizen of Indian heritage, all with the surname Singh, made separate refugee claims in Canada. As per the then existing Immigration Act, applicants for refugee status simply filed legal claims and documentation. They were not given an opportunity for oral hearings. Their applications were all rejected by the then-Immigration Appeal Board for lack of valid grounds for refugee status. Their lawyers argued that this procedure violated their clients’ rights as established by Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The provision reads that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” They all appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. But because the government claimed that they had no status in Canada, they were not entitled to the principles of fundamental justice flowing from the Charter. Due to the similarities of their legal issues, all the seven were dealt with in a single case, the Singh case.
Let’s celebrate that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity.
After hearing their submissions, the Supreme Court ruled that based on Section 7 of the Charter, “life, liberty and security of the person” applied to everyone who was in Canada, whether they had status or not. This, then, included refugee applicants and undocumented persons. They decided that refugee status claims required an oral hearing where claimants could state their case and know the case against them before being either accepted into the country or deported.
Protecting refugees makes our communities stronger.
The Singh decision was a turning point of how refugees are dealt with in Canada. It struck down the then existing refugee determination system that did not adhere to the principles of fundamental justice. It led to the revamping of the refugee status determination system and establishment of the quasi-judicial Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) that holds oral hearings to adjudicate refugee claims.
Last year, a week after celebrating the Refugee Rights Day, the federal government introduced changes to Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) in the omnibus budget bill. The changes are a major reversal to the gains made relating to the Charter rights as determined by Supreme Court in the 1985 Singh decision. As a result of these changes, a person who has previously made a refugee claim in another country with whom Canada has an information-sharing agreement (notably in the United States) is now ineligible to make a refugee claim in Canada or to be heard by the IRB.
These ineligible claimants now have access only to a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA). PRRA is a process of ensuring that people removed from Canada are not sent back to a country where they would be in danger or at risk of persecution. This process is not as fair as a hearing at the IRB is because it is conducted by junior civil servants with limited experience and resources. In cases of a negative decision, ineligible claimants have no right to an appeal. Their only recourse is to apply for judicial review at the Federal Court which may be denied or decided after their removal from the country. These changes are a violation of the Charter rights of the claimants, as determined in the Singh decision and are likely to lead to further legal challenges.
Now more than ever is the time to stand with refugees.
During this coronavirus pandemic there is a global trend of countries becoming more inward looking as they protect the health of their people. This means that the rights of refugees are being thrown to the wayside. Last week the federal government of Canada reached a reciprocal arrangement with the United States to return irregular migrants who attempt to cross anywhere at the Canada-U.S. border. This presumably temporary arrangement has implications for the Safe Third Country Agreement between the two countries and the rights of asylum seekers. To turn away asylum seekers is to turn back the most vulnerable in this global time of need. We are all interconnected.
As we mark the 35th of the historic decision, we should bear in mind that COVID-19 has put the whole world in extraordinary circumstances. CPJ believes that we should maintain our commitment to the common good of protecting the rights of refugees and other vulnerable people. Turning asylum seekers away at borders is counter to those rights and our international obligations.
Photo Credit: Flickr/Climatalk.in