The government has introduced Bill C-31 as a way to reform Canada's refugee determination system. The Bill as written will not protect refugees, but will punish them instead.
OCASI calls on the government to withdraw Bill C-31, and bring forward legislation which is fair, timely, affordable, and independent of political considerations, and which complies with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada's international obligations.
OCASI is deeply concerned that the Bill would create a two-tier system of refugee protection in Canada which could result in some claimants being denied the right to appeal. It makes refugee protection in Canada dangerously vulnerable to political whims, rather than ensuring a fair and independent decision about who is a refugee. It introduced new, shorter timelines for the refugee claims process, making it more difficult for many refugee claimants to prepare themselves and to tell their story. It punishes refugee claimants who arrive in a group, which is sometimes the only option for some who flee persecution. The Bill includes alarming new measures to revoke the status of refugees who are now permanent residents and immediately deport them. Finally the Bill completely ignores Canada's international obligations and compliance with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Bill will amend the current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) of 2001 and the current Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act of 1994. It will amend the legislation Bill C-11 (known as “Balanced Refugee Reform Act”) which was passed in June 2010 and which is expected to come into force in June 29, 2012. It will also amend Bill C-4 introduced in June 2011 as an anti-human smuggling measure. After six days of debate, the last in October 2011, there was no further movement on Bill C-4. Instead, the government tabled Bill C-31 on 16 February 2012, calling it ‘Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act'.
Bill C-31 is currently at the second reading stage in Parliament, having completed five days of debate as of March 26, 2012. Click here for the current status of the Bill.
There are many concerns with this complex bill, which contains a wide variety of measures that could put refugees at risk. The following are four major concerns:
Time Limits are shorter
The Bill gives those who make a refugee claim at Canada's ports of entry only 15 days to submit a written version of their refugee claim to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). For many claimants, the time allowed will not be sufficient to obtain legal advice and prepare for the complicated legal requirements of the definition of Convention Refugee. The shorter timelines will have the greatest impact on refugees who need time to build trust before they can tell their story before the IRB, and on refugees who lack important documents. Refugees who will be most disadvantaged would be those who have experienced torture, women and men who have experienced sexual violence, and LGBTQ refugees making a claim on the basis of sexual orientation and identity. The new refugee legislation (Bill C-11/Balanced Refugee Reform Act) requires that an appeal must be filed within 15 working days . The combination of the two restrictive time limits can result in many valid claims being denied because of insufficient preparation.
Safe Countries and political interference
Bill C-31 will give the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration sole discretion to designate certain countries of origin as safe. The Bill allows the Minister nearly unrestricted authority to designate any country, on the basis of claim rate and rate of acceptance at the IRB. A country that is ‘safe' for some residents may be unsafe for others, particularly minorities including LGBTQ individuals who may face a different level of risk. Refugee claimants from designated countries will be treated differently under the law. Specifically, they will have only 30 days to prove their claim (instead of the 60 days given to everyone else) and will not have the right to appeal a negative decision. Refused claimants could be deported after 45 days from the date of making their claim. A refugee claim may be denied for a variety of reasons, including because of mistakes and poor representation of the claimant. Denying a claimant access to an appeal is unfair, and the subsequent deportation will have serious consequences. The new refugee legislation (Bill C-11/Balanced Refugee Reform Act) contains the provision to designate safe countries, but puts restrictions on the Minister's power. Specifically, an advisory panel of experts established by the Minister which would include at least two non-government human rights experts must make a recommendation supporting the designation before the Minister can proceed . However Bill C-31 removes this safeguard, allowing Canada's present system of independent decision-making for refugees to become vulnerable to economic and geopolitical interests.
Increased use of detention
Bill C-31 allows the Minister to designate refugees who arrive in a group as ‘irregular arrivals', which would subject them to different treatment. This element is an aspect of Bill C-4 (anti-human smuggling). Anyone within the designated group will face mandatory imprisonment of up to one year with no right of judicial review, a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Under the Bill, everyone in the designated group would be detained including children over age 16. Parents with children under age 16 will have to choose between their being detained with them or being put into state care. Those who make a successful refugee claim will not be allowed to apply for permanent resident status for five years after the date of acceptance of their claim, which can keep families apart for five years or more. Claimants in the designated group will not have a right of appeal if their claim is denied.
Loss of Permanent Resident status
The Bill contains a completely new measure to revoke permanent resident status of those who arrived as refugees and were granted protection, regardless of how long that person has lived in Canada. The measure, called “Cessation”, allows the government to apply to the IRB for a decision that the refugee is no longer at risk in her or his home country. The refugee can lose both Convention refugee status and permanent resident status if the application is granted. The person has no right of appeal and can be deported immediately. Under the current law, a person can lose refugee status only if it was obtained through fraud, or if convicted of a serious crime or if permanent residence status is abandoned. The new measure will put anyone granted refugee status and who has not yet obtained Canadian citizenship at risk of loss of status and deportation.
Bill C-31 creates an unfair refugee system. It gives the Minister broad, vaguely defined powers with no oversight or accountability. It creates a dangerous precedent. Bill C-31 violates the Charter, ignores our international obligations under the Geneva Convention (on refugees) and Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is counter to our Canadian humanitarian tradition and values.
Click on the links for more information
Bill C-31 (full text)
Canadian Council for Refugees
Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers
Letter from Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture
Peter Showler (Maytree blog)
Comments from AGIR on impact of Bill C-31 on LGBTQ refugees