A good start

Canada’s flawed system for processing refugee claims is about to get an overhaul and the proposed changes are being applauded by many as long overdue. With close to 60 per cent of the more than 12,000 annual refugee claims being rejected, federal immigration minister Jason Kenney has proposed a series of measures intended to increase efficiency in processing refuge claims and to weed out false claims under the $540 million Balanced Refugee Reform Act, Bill C-11.

In one creative proposal to encourage failed claimants to return to their countries of origin, the federal government will provide such persons with transportation cost for their departure and a $2000 incentive, to be administered by coordinating agencies in the respective countries. This may work for the few, but not likely for the many who will simply disappear into the Canadian landscape along with the almost 40,000 failed claimants already living within the country in parts unknown (most of them convinced that their chances here, even underground, are better than life back home).

One controversial aspect of Bill C-11 is the introduction of a “safe countries of origin” list which will act as a guideline in streaming claimants. “Safe” countries are identified as democracies which respect accepted human rights conventions. It is controversial because, for example, in recent years, Mexicans who had been living without legal status in the U.S. (a “safe” country) began fleeing in their numbers after a change in immigration policy in the U.S., and heading for Canadian cities such as Windsor.

Mexico, itself, has recently been the source of a flood of refugee claimants. To discourage the high numbers coming from that country, Canada’s immigration ministry recently imposed visa restrictions. Now, should Bill C-11 be passed, those whose lives are in imminent danger as a result of the raging drug wars in some regions there may be at greater risk of being returned, since under the bill’s criteria Mexico is considered a “safe country”.

Kenney has described this guideline as “simply an additional tool (to be used) on a very limited discreet basis for countries from which we are receiving a high number of unfounded claims.”

But this aspect in particular is a matter of great concern for many who seek asylum here. While Kenney has stated that each claim will still be considered on its own merits, the concern is that adjudicators could have a predetermined bias, or enter with skepticism into the examination of a claimant from a so-called “safe” country.

Even now the lives of some asylum seekers are being jeopardized under this currently unwritten criterion. Recently, a high-profile Mexican police detective who had been working in northern Mexico has made the case that his life would be in imminent danger should he be denied refugee status here and be made to return to Mexico where he had waged a well publicized investigation into the rape and murder of hundreds of women in the state of Chihuahua.

Kenney has also included a change in the staffing for initial hearings that would see a shift from panels of political appointees to professional civil servants. Some see this as a good thing while others are not so sure that it is. Would civil servants be more fair in dealing with would-be refugees than appointees who have had some experience working within the various communities, for example?

Another proposal would see the speeding up of the processing time so that a refugee claimant will be first interviewed within eight days and receive a hearing within 60 days, rather than the current 19-month process. This will help to get people into settled lives faster. However, there will no doubt be problems in having claims properly prepared within that new shorter time period.

Would the officials, for example, in their haste, overlook certain relevant factors that could work in an applicant’s favour.

All that noted, it is still a start in the right direction for a program that means to do well – for Canada takes in more refugees than most other countries – but which, itself, needs rescuing.


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