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Uncle Jason Deserves A Medal For His Efforts To Reform Canada’s Refugee “System”

June 14, 2010

Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney.

I haven’t been following the debate over reforms to Canada’s refugee system with any particular closeness, but it’s encouraging to see Immigration Minister Jason Kenney at least attempting to do something about the issue. Any reasonable policy for processing refugee claimants would aim to balance two opposite risks: that genuine victims might be rebuffed and sent away to face persecution or worse, and that opportunists might slip through and succeed in taking up residence in Canada. Unfortunately, Canada’s system appears to have been designed by people who lay awake worrying that we might accidentally send away a deserving claimant, but didn’t much care how many undeserving ones made it through. As a result, the balance has been upset in spades.

The problem is a long-standing one, and is perfectly well-documented. Back in 1992, the Liberal politician and former Immigration Appeal Board member David Anderson called a newly constituted version of the board “a wretched monster that’s out of control”, and commented acidly that the rule of law was being “subverted” by acceptance of false claims. He also noted that Canada’s acceptance rate for refugee claims was 64% – more than triple Britain’s, and more than nine times Australia’s. Since then our acceptance rate has dropped off to some extent, but remains relatively high. Data provided by the Canadian Council for Refugees imply a rate of 54.8% in 2008.

The real scandal, however, is that a negative decision does not necessarily lead to deportation. The Fraser Institute put it rather delicately in a 2004 study:

Even failed refugee applicants have a significant possibility of securing permanent residence and citizenship through various immigration categories. At the end of the process, relative to other countries, Canada’s effort to remove failed refugee applicants appears to have been given a low priority.

The Montreal Gazette was more precise:

We have a backlog of 60,000 claimants waiting for decisions. It now takes on average 19 months for a claimant to get a first hearing. When refugee status is not granted, final resolution of a case can take five years. Some 15,000 rejected claimants are “awaiting removal” from Canada. Another 38,000 have simply vanished. The average case costs taxpayers about $50,000 to resolve. It’s a shambles.

Canada’s traditional refugee policy could almost be described as a non-policy: just show up, make a claim, and you’ll probably be able to stay, without the government’s having much of a meaningful say in the matter. The practical consequences of this situation are mixed. Canada is not exactly being flooded by spurious refugees: the annual number of claimants has varied from about 20,000 to about 44,000 over the past decade. However, surges of claimants from specific countries represent a perennial concern, and one that the government generally deals with by imposing a visa requirement on the country in question.  After all, the thinking presumably goes, they can’t claim asylum if they can’t get to Canada in the first place. It’s an extraordinarily passive-aggressive approach – in effect, we’re so dysfunctionally incapable of saying “no” to a refugee claimant that we go to great lengths to avoid being asked in the first place. And because foreign governments are understandably annoyed when Canada decides that their citizens need visas, our bilateral relationships suffer.

Against this background, Uncle Jason’s efforts to reform the refugee processing system have been laudable. The thrust of his original plan was to take the obvious steps of speeding up decisions and improving deportation enforcement. The general idea clearly enjoyed broad political support, but one detail – a plan to deny refugees from designated “safe” countries access to a new Refugee Appeal Division if their claims were rejected – aroused the ire of the opposition parties.

A compromise has now emerged, but in my opinion the politicians who dug in their heels over the safe country list were being little short of perfidious. It’s perfectly reasonable to acknowledge that some foreign countries protect their citizens at least as well as we protect ours, and accordingly that claims of asylum originating from those countries are likely to be unfounded. In fact, I would prefer a bill that went even further and did not permit claims arising from safe countries to be heard in Canada at all. While persecution can happen anywhere, many potential victims have ample recourse to their own governments, and it’s silly for Canada to try to take up slack that barely exists. Uncle Jason should be commended on a good start, but our refugee system still has some way to go before that vital sense of balance is restored. Meanwhile, it would be nice if the opposition parties would stop behaving as if the amiable little custom of admitting refugees were some kind of sacred duty or vital national interest.

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