Fast-track refugee reforms ‘too fast’

Posted by admin on Apr 6th, 2010

By NORMA GREENAWY, Canwest News Service. April 6, 2010

Lawyer Heather Neufeld says it can take weeks and even months for refugee clients to trust her enough to divulge the grisly details of how they were gang raped by guards in a foreign jail, or how they endured years of beatings and sexual abuse by gun-wielding husbands. Neufeld says these are the people she worries about most when examining the federal government’s new proposals to create a “fair and faster” system for handling refugee claims in Canada. Under the reforms, prospective refugees would get an oral hearing within 60 days of making their claim – down from the current average of 19 months.

Neufeld and other critics do not believe having to wait 19 months is acceptable. They just think there is such a thing as too fast.

“It’s really the people who are the most genuine refugees, who really do deserve protection and who really have been through trauma, that are going to suffer from a ‘quick in, quick out’ sort of situation,” says Neufeld, who specializes in refugee claims at an Ottawa legal aid clinic.

Reliving the persecution, especially for women, is just too painful and shameful to talk about until they have had some counselling and time to build up some trust in their legal representatives, she says.

The government has received fairly good reviews so far for its proposed reforms, which include plans to create a new Refugee Appeal Division to review first-level decisions within four months, and to more quickly oust failed claimants from the country.

Peter Showler, a former chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board, says the 60-day timeline for the pivotal first hearing is a “serious flaw” in a legislative package that otherwise strikes a “reasonable balance.”

He wants Parliament to amend the legislation to extend the deadline to 120 days, or about four months.

“Refugees are scared. They don’t do a very good job of communicating. It takes a lot of skill to draw them out,” says Showler, director of the Refugee Forum at the University of Ottawa’s law school.

The 60-day limit risks too many “bad” decisions based on inadequate information or too many cases being adjourned to a later date so more information can be collected, he said.

“The appeal (division) is supposed to catch mistakes. But don’t set (the system) up for that first level of hearing to be a mistake.”

Neufeld said it’s unrealistic to think busy refugee lawyers can put together a credible refugee claim in 60 days when they are often dealing with traumatized men and women – most of whom are unable to speak either of Canada’s official languages – who may be fleeing countries torn by strife and where basic communications tools, such as emails and faxes, are rare.

Even if the gist of the refugee’s story can be compiled and corroborated in a written report in time for the hearing, many will be in no shape to give a convincing oral report to the board, she said.

Showler says his thinking is influenced in part by his own experience on the Immigration and Refugee Board from 1994 to 2001.

Showler cited one particularly memorable case, when, he says, a refugee claimant became “very upset” after being asked repeatedly to detail the persecution he says he endured before fleeing his native African country.

“He stood up and said, ‘don’t you understand,’ and he pulled up his shirt and he had this horrible scar on his stomach, which was related to burn wounds,” Showler recalled.

“And guess what? That was a surprise to everybody in the room, including his lawyer.”

Janet Dench of the Montreal-based Canadian Council for Refugees says she is already hearing complaints from lawyers that the 60-day limit is unworkable, given the need to collect material to document specific cases of alleged persecution and also obtain credible research on the state of human rights in any given country.

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