Federal government advised to tread carefully on refugee reforms

Posted by admin on Nov 26th, 2010

By Norma Greenaway, Postmedia News November 26, 2010

OTTAWA — Months before the Harper government proposed revamping Canada’s refugee system, it was warned Canadians likely would balk at any move to treat asylum seekers differently, depending on their country of origin. Most Canadians want the refugee system to “err on the side of fairness,” said a report commissioned by the federal government last year. The research was conducted as Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and other officials were quietly floating the idea of establishing different rules for claimants who arrived here from countries which are generally seen as respectful of democratic and human rights.

Despite angry protests from refugee advocates and political critics, Kenney included the so-called “safe” country designation in the package of reforms he introduced in the Commons in April.

One of the most controversial measures said claimants from “safe” countries would not be allowed to appeal to the new Refugee Appeal Division if their claims were rejected at a first hearing.

Kenney unveiled the package four months after Decima Research delivered its report to the department on Dec. 1, 2009. The recently released report was based on the views of Canadians who participated in a dozen two-hour focus group sessions in Quebec City, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Mississauga and Richmond, Ont.

The Decima report said there was strong consensus for improving and speeding up the system as long as asylum seekers are given the “benefit of the doubt” in the claims process.

“Creating different tracks for refugee claims, based on whether a country or region is a higher or lower conflict/persecution area, was appealing in theory,” it said, “but there was no consensus in practice, specifically on which regions would be put in which group.”

The report said there was vigorous debate over who should determine higher and lower priority countries. Several groups suggested relying on a combination of independent international and domestic expertise to draw up the lists.

Decima also said that while some groups raised concerns about false refugee claims, “most did not feel that there was a huge problem with systematic abuse.”

The government, on the other hand, had decided the system was broken and vulnerable to abuse.

Kenney and other members of the Harper government used every chance they got before the legislation was introduced to try to drum up public support for overhauling the system.

They repeatedly talked about Canada’s problem with “bogus” and “phoney” refugee claimants who were “jumping the queue” to the detriment of bona fide refugees.

As the reform package went though the parliamentary approval process, however, it became clear the legislation was doomed in the minority Parliament if the government didn’t bend on the safe-country designation.

By June, Kenney had changed course. He agreed an independent panel, rather than the immigration minister, would determine the list of “designated” countries from which refugee claimants would receive a quicker claims process.

Most importantly, he agreed claimants from “designated” countries would have the same right as asylum seekers from other countries to appeal a negative ruling at the first-level hearing.

The package, dubbed the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, stands out as one of the few examples of major legislation approved in the minority Parliament since the Conservatives won their first narrow victory in 2006.

The amended legislation received royal assent last June, less than three months after it was introduced in the Commons.

Opposition critics praised Kenney for recognizing his original package violated Canadians’ fundamental sense of fairness and agreeing to change it.

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