TORIES TARGET FALSE REFUGEES
Immigration bill to hasten decisions, deportations
Norma Greenaway and David Akin, Canwest News Services
Vowing not to cave to the "enemies of reform," Immigration Minister Jason Kenney proposed $540-million worth of new measures yesterday to overhaul the system for dealing with refugee claims from foreigners who arrive on Canadian soil.
Mr. Kenney said the changes, once implemented, will cut the time it takes for a refugee claimant to get a hearing to two months from the current 19 and reduce to about two years from the average 4½ years the time it takes to evict a rejected applicant.
A total of $1.6-million of the new money has been earmarked for clearing the backlog of 60,000 asylum seekers.
"Our generosity is too often abused by false refugee claimants," Mr. Kenney told a news conference. "The system is full of opportunities for appeal, and we are streamlining that process."
The shorter timelines would be achieved by allowing trained public servants to make the first call on a refugee claim and limiting avenues of appeal currently open to those whose claims are rejected.
Mr. Kenney said the new limits on appeals are offset by the government's decision to create a new refugee appeal division, which would be charged with reviewing the first-level decision within four months and allowing new evidence to be submitted. Government appointees would staff the division.
One measure that already has refugee advocates, as well as some opposition politicians on high alert, would allow the immigration minister to designate a list of "safe" countries of origin.
Refugee claimants from those "safe" countries would not have the right to appeal to the new division. Their only recourse would be the Federal Court of Canada.
Mr. Kenney billed the safe country designation as a necessary tool to counter any spikes in refugee claims from democratic countries with a robust human rights record.
As it stands now, Mr. Kenney said, the government has to resort to imposing visa requirements when claims surge from individual countries, as it did last year for visitors from Mexico and the Czech Republic, a tactic that, he said, can undermine diplomatic and commercial relations.
Mr. Kenney said the list of safe countries would be drawn up after receiving advice from an independent panel and the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees.
New Democrat MP Olivia Chow embraced elements of the reform package that would speed hearing claims and deportations of failed claimants, but denounced the safe country idea as unfair.
"We want fair and fast," said Ms. Chow, the party's immigration critic.
Bloc Quebecois MP Thierry St-Cyr accused Mr. Kenney of sacrificing justice by allowing refugees to be judged based on their country of origin and creating two categories for people seeking asylum.
Janet Dench of the Refugee Council of Canada agreed.
"Refugee determination should be done on the individual facts of the case, not the country of origin," Ms. Dench said in an interview from Montreal.
Gloria Nafziger, refugee coordinator for Amnesty International, said the government was opening a political minefield with the safe country proposal.
"It's highly problematic," Ms. Nafziger said. "We are a human rights organization and we have never tried to rank countries by the depth of their human rights abuses."
Liberal MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, the party's immigration critic, described the reform package as "a good start" and said he looks forward to more detailed study when it gets to committee.
Mr. Bevilacqua said Liberals want more information on how the safe countries will be selected, and assurances the money earmarked for such things as hiring more officers for the Canadian Border Service Agency to track down and oust failed refugee claimants from Canada will actually be used for that purpose.
The $540-million funding for the reforms--which will be spread over five years -- won't be tapped until the legislation becomes law, something that is not expected to happen until next year at the earliest.
Mr. Kenney said the savings will be substantial under the new process. It now costs about $50,000 in health and social service costs for each failed refugee claimant, a sum that should fall to about $29,000 under the new and speedier system, Mr. Kenney said.
Other elements of the package:
-Rejected claimants would have severely restricted access to the options of winning a reprieve on compassionate and humanitarian grounds, or on grounds they would be subjected to severe persecution and possibly death upon return to their native country.
-A four-year pilot project to encourage voluntary departure by rejected claimants that, among other things, would provide each participant with a plane ticket back to their country of origin, and provide $2,000 to a service provider in that country to facilitate the failed claimant's reintegration into that society.
-A public servant will help a refugee claimant gather all relevant information for an initial hearing before the refugee board within eight days of the claim being made. The current system gives a claimant 28 days to fill out a long form.