Government prepares for public relations war over refugees

Posted by admin on Mar 17th, 2010

By Lee Berthiaume, March 17, 2010, Embassy Magazine

In preparation for a possible public relations war, Citizenship and Immigration Canada commissioned two surveys last summer to feel Canadians out on prospective changes to the refugee system—as well as the messaging that will accompany them. The results, which show Canadians overwhelmingly support a fair system that provides asylum seekers the benefit of the doubt, have encouraged some refugee advocates. However, there are also worries the government is using the research to find ways to sway public opinion in favour of reforms that advocates fear will undermine Canada’s renowned refugee system. But those in favour of a more stringent screening process for asylum seekers say the government is wise to prepare itself before embarking on what will undoubtedly be a messy campaign.

Mr. Kenney said last year that he expected to introduce the proposed reforms before Christmas. That never happened, but the government said in the Throne Speech that it still intends to move ahead in the near future.

On July 28, Citizenship and Immigration Canada awarded Harris-Decima a contract to conduct a phone survey related to refugee system reforms. A total of 1,010 Canadians were called from Sept. 3-6. While some of the questions were relatively innocuous, others were very much geared towards getting a reaction to specific wording.

For example, participants were asked whether “the Canadian refugee system does a good job of weeding out bogus refugee claimants.” (The underline was included in the Harris-Decima summary of findings.) In this case, only three per cent of respondents strongly agreed, and 18 per cent somewhat agreed.

The participants were then asked whether “the Canadian system does a good job of weeding out unfounded refugee claimants.” In this case, seven per cent strongly agreed, and 18 per cent somewhat agreed.

Similarly, 81 per cent of respondents agreed that “all refugee claims should be dealt with more quickly so that genuine refugees can settle in Canada faster and bogus claimants can be sent home more quickly.” Only 76 per cent agreed to the statement when “bogus” was replaced with “unfounded.”

Participants were also asked whether, when it came to Canada’s refugee levels, they thought there were “too many,” “about the right number” or “too few.” After responding, they were provided with contextual information about where refugees come from and asked again. As with the other questions, the responses varied.

Decima Research also conducted 12 focus groups across the country to get feedback on some of the possible reforms Minister Kenney has publicly indicated he is looking at.

For example, participants were asked their thoughts on treating applicants from different countries differently, segregating or detaining asylum seekers while they awaited a decision, and whether the number of appeals should be limited.

Pollsters found that while participants were in favour of reforms, many held reservations about some of the measures proposed to them.

They “overwhelmingly believed in the idea of Canada being among the most open countries to refugees in the world,” according to the Decima report. At the same time, “most wanted the system to err on the side of fairness when dealing with refugees.”

“At its core, the sentiment was that getting the correct decision was paramount,” the report adds.

The researchers found divisiveness on how asylum seekers from different countries should be categorized, the number of appeals that would be reasonable, and whether there should be more or less refugees allowed into Canada.

“Our view is that if government seeks to pursue reform, it would be prudent to develop remedies to these potential issues, as they have the potential to yield concerns from some Canadians,” the report concludes.

Preparing for war

When the Conservative government introduced proposed changes to the immigration system several years ago, a major public relations battle erupted between the government, opposition parties, and stakeholders on both sides.

James Bissett, a former head of the Canadian Immigration Service who has been advocating in favour of tightening up the refugee system, said political parties are traditionally frightened of rocking the boat when it comes to these issues.

“Immigration and refugee things are toxic for politicians,” he said. “It’s better to keep the status quo and keep it quiet.”

However, Mr. Bissett said that with Immigration Minister Kenney having clearly indicated the government intends to push ahead with reforms to the refugee system, getting the message right is important.

One clear result of both the telephone survey and focus groups was that most Canadians know almost nothing about the refugee system. There’s no reason to doubt that the government—which is expected to unveil major proposals—won’t unleash a public relations campaign, like it did for the immigration changes. As a result, Mr. Bissett said it only makes sense that the government is getting prepared.

“They’re testing the water with these focus groups and others just to see where we stand,” he said.

“I think that most Canadians, who clearly don’t understand the system and don’t understand the problem, will be very suspicious of any attempt by the government to tighten up, because these are refugees and we have an international reputation of being an open country, a fair country, a country that is moved by humanitarian issues. And they will see this, unless it is handled very carefully, as a means of just cutting off refugees.”

On top of that, Mr. Bissett believes refugee advocates, lawyers, churches and even the media will jump on board to reinforce those concerns.

Fellow former ambassador Martin Collacott, another advocate for a tougher refugee system, agreed that the government was well-advised to test its messaging beforehand given expected opposition to the proposals.

“[Mr. Kenney] is probably right in thinking very carefully about what he proposed and being ready for the blowback,” said Mr. Collacott.

However, he wasn’t sure of the degree to which the survey results would influence the final refugee system reforms that government will propose.

“The focus groups, I think, are good at giving an idea of where things are at,” he said. “It’s helpful in helping [Mr. Kenney] decide what to do and how to put it.

“But I don’t think Kenney would probably be totally bound by that. I think he’d take it into account. I think he’s been thinking about these issues for quite a while and if he thought he should in the interests of the public put in something stronger than what the focus groups have recommended, I think he would try it out.”

Advocates encouraged, frustrated

Mr. Collacott acknowledged that the focus groups, in particular, indicated Canadians were more pro-refugee than many might initially think.

“The focus groups, I felt, were a little on the side of ‘We’re generous Canadians, let’s keep the door open in all areas,'” he said. “‘Let’s toughen up a bit but let’s basically leave the door a crack open.'”

Mr. Collacott believes that if the government does decide to curb some of its reforms to curry more public approval, it will result in many of the system’s problems remaining.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says there is a feeling within the community that Mr. Kenney’s comments about “bogus” asylum seekers and systematic abuse of the refugee system over the past year were designed to sway public opinion in favour of major reforms.

“The fact they’re doing a focus group and public opinion survey that touches on those matters tends to reinforce the sense that the government has an overall strategy,” she said. “The worst version of that is the fear that they want to generate anti-refugee sentiment for electoral purpose.”

However, she and others were encouraged by the results of the studies.

“Most Canadians want a system that is open to refugees, that they take pride in a Canada that is welcoming to people who flee persecution and what is most important is that the system is fair,” she said. “It’s quite encouraging to see to what extent Canadians broadly are committed to refugee protection and are not willing to jump on the bandwagon of blaming refugees.”

Despite this, refugee advocates, lawyers and others are angry and frustrated that Mr. Kenney has refused to meet with them to discuss the proposed changes before introducing them.

“This time around, the government only consulted with handpicked individuals and on the basis of a signed undertaking that they wouldn’t discuss any of the discussions,” said Sharry Aiken, an immigration expert at Queen’s University.

“It’s very clear that the policy options have already been worked up. This is not consultations with a view to deciding what they should do, but consultations with a view to how they can sell what they want to do already.”

Canadians and the Refugee System

From Sept. 3-6, polling firm Harris/Decima conducted 1,010 telephone interviews with random Canadians across the country to determine their views of the country’s refugee system. The following are some of the results:

n 42 per cent had recently heard something about the refugee system. The main source of information was the media: TV (58 per cent), print (47 per cent) and radio (27 per cent).

n Participants were asked about their perceptions of refugee levels in Canada, both with and without contextual information. When provided with background, more Canadians offered an opinion:

Too many—30 per cent both with and without contextual information;

About the right number—39 per cent with contextual information vs. 28 per cent without;

Too few—15 per cent with contextual information vs. 12 per cent without;

Don’t know—16 per cent with contextual information vs. 30 per cent without.

n64 per cent of participants agreed that “the Canadian system for dealing with people claiming refugee status is part of Canada’s humanitarian tradition.”

n 21 per cent agreed that “the Canadian refugee system does a good job of weeding out bogus refugee claimants.” 24 per cent agreed that “the Canadian refugee system does a good job of weeding out unfounded refugee claimants.”

n 44 per cent of participants agreed that “some refugee claimants use the refugee system to try to jump the queue and get around the immigration process.”

n 44 per cent of participants agreed that “when refugee claimants have to wait too long for their claims to be processed, they are a burden to Canadian taxpayers.”

n 51 per cent of participants agreed that “legitimate refugee claimants suffer when Canada must spend time and resources on those whose refugee claims are determined to be unfounded.”

n 58 per cent of participants agreed that more needs to be done to quickly remove from Canada people whose refugee claims are unfounded and rejected.

n 49 per cent of participants strongly agreed and 35 per cent somewhat agreed that the government should take steps to reform the refugee determination system.

n 81 per cent agreed that “all refugee claims should be dealt with more quickly so that genuine refugees can settle in Canada faster and bogus claimants can be sent home more quickly.”

n 76 per cent agreed that “all refugee claims should be dealt with more quickly so that genuine refugees can settle in Canada faster and unfounded claimants can be sent home more quickly.”

n 56 per cent felt that all refugee claimants should be treated exactly the same regardless of where they come from, while 40 percent said the system should be sensitive to where a refugee claimant is coming from.

n 66 per cent agreed that “it is reasonable to ask travellers coming to Canada to first obtain a visa from a Canadian visa office abroad, in order to screen people out who are likely to make false refugee claims.”

The results are accurate to within ±3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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