Jason Kenney’s troubling refugee legacy

Posted by admin on Mar 30th, 2011

By Jim Creskey, The Embassy, Mar. 30 2011

Jason Kenney was making changes to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration at a torrid pace—or so it seemed—until he was stopped dead in his tracks last week by a non-confidence vote. Now, before the May 2 election, might be a good time to take stock of what he accomplished. The migration department he was given by Stephen Harper was a house built on policy and practice laid by Liberals and Mulroney Progressive Conservatives and shaped by Charter rulings, public consultations and politics—lots of politics. It was a place of noble aims, practical goals, unkept promises, interminable long waits and a lot of over-worked public servants—some of them amazingly compassionate, others sullen and patronizing. A few were even found to be corrupt.

Correctly seen from outside Canada, it was one of the best immigration and refugee systems in the world. But it was also inclined to dysfunction, some of it caused by misguided budget cuts in the wrong places, some of it from various levels of distressed leadership that had started to buy into a pessimistic narrative.

It was also the kind of ministry that could (easily) wreck or (not so-easily) launch a politician’s career, and the youthful Kenney, who was born in 1968, was definitely in launch mode.

In the course of undertaking his ministerial responsibilities for the protection of refugees, Kenney came across a vote-harvesting scheme that actually had nothing to do with refugees or their protection. Its subject was fear.

Kenney—with some help from Prime Minister Harper and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews—used the arrival of two boatloads of Tamil asylum seekers in an attempt to prod public opinion toward the idea that “bogus” refugee claimants were overrunning Canada.

Pretending to punish smugglers—who were largely phantoms out of reach of Canadian authority—he put forward Bill C-49, which resolutely set out policies that would punish the refugees themselves.

C-49 was a profoundly flawed piece of work that proposed building special prisons for refugees who had the good luck to escape to Canada from foreign murder and mayhem but the bad luck to have been caught using the help of a smuggler. Further punishments included the withholding of family reunions as well as healthcare and other services.

It was a strategy that promised to sweep up more votes from ordinary Canadians who could be sold the idea that they needed to be protected from a flood of illegal arrivals. It was pure theatre, with the two ministers and even the prime minister turning up at the two rusting hulks, the Ocean Lady and the Sun Sea, to promote their bill, the extremely wordy Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act.

It was also politicking in the same vein as Republican anti-immigrant propaganda in the US—to the detriment of genuine refugees who are in a way the canaries in the Immigration Department’s mineshaft.

If the least powerful clients of the Citizenship and Immigration Department—asylum seekers—were being treated fairly then we would have a strong hint the portfolio was being well managed. Unfortunately they are not.

Kenney’s refugee legacy has been deeply disappointing. The number of asylum seekers needing protection and allowed into Canada has declined markedly on his watch.

A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report released this week charted a 30 per cent drop in the number of applications for asylum in Canada. The UN study came on the heels of reports that CIC is looking at scrapping visa applications from designated source countries. Ironically, the result of that change would be more desperate people resorting to smuggling.

At the same time, Kenney’s publicly disparaging comments about whole groups of refugees have raised concerns that his department’s appointed refugee judges are being influenced. For that reason, the immigration minister holds the power of life and death over a refugee claimant. He also occupies a pulpit of great influence when he speaks in public.

If he said, as he did, that Mexican and Czech Roma refugees were systematically abusing the system or that US Iraq War resisters were fraudsters or “bogus,” how many of his department’s judges would want to prove him wrong?

There are plenty of appointed refugee judges who are fair and balanced, working hard to be well informed about the situations and the personal circumstances in the refugee’s home countries.

But recent legal and media investigations of Refugee Board decisions have uncovered judges who, despite evidence to the contrary, turn down virtually any asylum seeker who steps into their quasi-judicial courtrooms. Others have been found to be so opposed to admitting a single claimant that they grill refugees relentlessly until they are found (in their distressed confusion) to make a mistake in their testimony.

The problem at the top is that the minister’s bruising public language is inclined to bring out the worst of his judges.

Kenney’s anti-smuggling bill and behaviour in public drew a flood of respectful and non-partisan criticism. Even normally Conservative supporters in church and civil society groups have seen the government was on the wrong track. But their requests for input have been turned aside, with Kenney publicly deriding them as “usual suspects from the immigration industry.”

If the Harper Conservatives come back in May with sufficient numbers to form a majority, some version of the now dead Bill C-49 is more than likely to spring up again. Would they reverse themselves and finally listen to the numerous church groups and NGOs, asking them to put some compassion back into refugee policy?

I wish it were so. But looking at the evidence of the Harper government, it would have to be a monumental sea change.

Migration may not be at the top of anyone’s list of key campaign issues. The actually number of refugees admitted into Canada at the best of times is small in comparison with immigration numbers. But refugee policy and practice defines a country’s soul like few other government actions.

I think most Canadians want their country to have a refugee policy that is fair, efficient and compassionate. But if they expect to see that happen, they need to find out how the system has been managed over the past several years before they vote.

Where and how to do that?

One suggestion is to have a look at the excellent website of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

A even better way would be to volunteer at one of the more than 170 church and secular organizations across Canada that help refugees in a personal way.


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