A crackdown on queue-jumpers

Will the Tories make bogus refugee claims an election issue?


A crackdown on queue-jumpersConservatives—especially those with Reform roots—have always disliked the Supreme Court’s 1985 Singh decision. It ruled that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies not just to Canadians, but to anyone who steps foot in Canada—even foreigners who arrive illegally and file refugee claims. Because the ruling specifically required that asylum seekers be granted oral hearings, it lead to the creation of the Immigration and Refugee Board, an independent, quasi-judicial body that now determines who does and doesn’t warrant our protection.

Last week, Jason Kenney, the minister of immigration, mentioned that it was high time that Canada give its refugee system a makeover. The topic came up while he was fielding questions about the federal government’s controversial decision to slap visa requirements on Czech and Mexican nationals travelling to Canada, a move made in response to the record number of people from both countries who’ve filed refugee claims here in recent years. It wasn’t the first time Kenney has called for reform.

In a letter to the editor published in the National Post shortly after 9/11, Kenney defended his then-boss, Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, against accusations he would not pursue a robust policy toward bogus asylum seekers “for fear of being branded racist.” Not true, Kenney wrote. Indeed, using language that echoed Reform party founder Preston Manning’s earlier criticism that Singh tread upon the “prerogatives of Parliament,” he noted that the Alliance had consistently proposed solutions such as “the detention of all undocumented arrivals until their identity is verified,” as well as “overriding the Singh decision” and developing a system that helps “legitimate” refugees, “rather than lawbreakers and queue-jumpers.”

Those were heady, post-Sept. 11 days; that was the Kenney of the Canadian Alliance. Today, he is a Conservative minister, handed the immigration portfolio last fall after a successful stint unfurling the Tories’ newly festive multiculturalism banner, a job that saw him glad-handing voters whose support has traditionally gone to the Liberals. Still, in discussing changes he’d like to make to Canada’s current refugee system, his language is strikingly similar to that old, yellowing letter to the editor—with a subtle change in emphasis. “I’m the minister responsible for over 900,000 people around the world who are patiently waiting in the queue to come to Canada, on average taking five-plus years to arrive here as permanent residents,” he told Maclean’s. “I cannot tolerate a situation where they see people simply getting a plane ticket, arriving here, saying the magic word ‘refugee,’ getting quasi-landed status, getting a work permit and/or welfare benefits. That is an insult to the millions of people who aspire to come to Canada legally.”

As it stands now, Kenney argues, Canada’s refugee system creates “a de facto two-tier immigration system: a slow one for law-abiders and a fast one for lawbreakers.” Kenney appears to have hit upon a different approach to assailing Canada’s asylum system, one that maintains his old unease with Singh but that at the same time appeals to the very constituency that that hardline stance once risked alienating: new Canadians.

The criticisms of Canada’s refugee system are well known—that it is overgenerous, accepts applications from countries with good human rights records, and that its convoluted procedures offer too many rejected claimants too many chances to remain in Canada for too long. Ours is one of only two refugee systems in the world that begins with an oral hearing and, unlike most European systems, doesn’t maintain a list of countries from which applicants won’t be heard (the U.S., for example, was a top-10 source country for refugee claimants in 2007 and 2008). Although it’s rare, rejected claimants who apply to remain here on humanitarian and compassionate grounds or because the situation at home has worsened can prolong their Canadian sojourn by 10 years or more. “The system can be used and abused by anybody with a good lawyer,” says the Fraser Institute’s Martin Collacott.

Then there’s the issue of the adjudicators who process these claims—the members of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB)—who too often are selected as much for their political connections as for their credentials. (Recall Steve Ellis, a former Toronto city councillor and Liberal IRB appointee, who gained infamy for allegedly offering to approve a South Korean woman’s claim in exchange for sex; the matter is still before the courts.) Determining how adjudicators are selected is itself a fraught process. When former immigration minister Diane Finley last rejigged that system in 2007, then-IRB chair Jean-Guy Fleury resigned over concerns the changes would further politicize things. His departure was followed by the dramatic leave-taking of five of his colleagues.

The latest fracas over visas is just more bad news for an already troubled system. Ordering the visa imposition for Czechs and Mexicans, Kenney says, wasn’t easy: “I take no joy in the difficult decision we had to make.” Nor have the reprisals been much fun. Mexico has slapped visa requirements on our diplomats. The Czech Republic recalled its ambassador and agitated for the European Union to hit us back. Sweden, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, mused that Canadians visiting Europe should also be required to apply for visas.

That’s unlikely to happen, Kenney argues, adding that, given the numbers, Canada “had no option” but to force the issue. The number of Mexican refugee claimants applying to Canada has surged from 1,649 in 2001 to 8,110 last year, and we already have 6,815 in 2009. The jump in Czech claimants is even more harrowing, with 85 in 2007—the year Canada lifted its previous visa requirement on the country—858 last year and 1,926 as of last month. Kenney describes these asylum seekers as “bogus refugee claimants,” language that’s prompted a group of Toronto Roma—the vast majority of Czech claimants are Roma—to announce they’ll sue him for interfering in IRB independence.

All these troubles Kenney lays on the doorstep of Canada’s faltering refugee system: “This is the inevitable consequence of having an asylum system that’s too easy to abuse,” he says. “At the end of the day, we need a system that complies with our Charter of Rights and our international obligations, that provides meaningful and quick protection to real victims, but that stops the incentive for bogus claimants to jump the queue.” Foreign government officials frequently tell him Canada is too easy a mark. That’s created a huge increase in claimants, numbers that are now outstripping the IRB’s capacity to process them, he argues. The IRB is funded to handle 25,000 decisions annually; last year there were almost 38,000 claims. “This,” says Kenney, “has everything to do with a system that arguably incentivizes false claims.”

Such talk has generated consternation among immigration lawyers and refugee advocates, who worry the Tories are preparing to scrap the IRB altogether. Kenney’s recent suggestion that Canada look to Britain’s system as an “interesting reference point” further leads them to believe the Tories would like to replace IRB adjudicators with public servants, undermining the system’s independence and, arguably, its ability to serve the Singh decision. In speaking with Maclean’s, Kenney refused to get specific on possible changes to the system but said of the British system that it has “disincentivized false claimants—i.e. economic migrants—from trying to jump the queue” and thus dramatically reduced the number of claimants, period.

Many believe the Conservatives have paved the way for a new system by deliberately neglecting the IRB. For a period of 18 months, between 2006 and 2008, the Tories only grudgingly appointed adjudicators to the board, leading to a massive vacancy rate that hindered its capacity to process applicants. In April, auditor general Sheila Fraser took note of the trend, pointing out that as of March 2008, only 106 of 164 IRB positions were occupied. Understaffing pushed a manageable inventory of claims—21,000 in 2005— to a record-breaking backlog of 60,823 now. Process times of just under 12 months in 2006 now stretch to almost 18. “To prevent abuse of our immigration system,” Fraser said, “it is important that a refugee claim not be perceived as providing an automatic stay in Canada for a significant period of time.”

Though the system has never been perfect, says University of Toronto law professor and former board member Audrey Macklin, the Tories have “proceeded to break it, then blamed asylum seekers for the fact that it was broken and are now using that as an excuse, as I understand it, to dismantle the system.” Kenney rejects such talk. “The tinfoil hat brigade is suggesting that the government nefariously refused to make appointments to create a backlog,” he says. He admits the Tories were slow to name members, a situation that “did lead to a reduction in processing capacity,” but maintains that was only due to Finley’s revamp. Even if they’d continued to staff the IRB at a normal rate, “we would have had a backlog of 45,000 rather than 60,000,” says Kenney, who adds of critics: “They should take off their tinfoil hats and deal with reality.”

Not everyone buys that. Peter Showler, a former IRB chair and now director of the University of Ottawa’s Refugee Forum, notes that the government is unlikely to push through any changes to the refugee system before a federal election, widely expected this fall. He speculates that by starving the board of resources, then possibly tabling an overhaul, the Tories are laying the groundwork for “a refugee issue platform for the election that puts them in a position where they’re able to say they’re going to get tough on these problematic refugees.” The gambit, he believes, would create a useful wedge issue for the Tories. But is Canada’s refugee system a good campaign platform? Kenney demurs: “If it were, maybe some party would have campaigned on it before now. I don’t think so—I think most people have regarded this as a really difficult issue to deal with.”

Still, Kenney may have found a way. If his cohorts once risked exposing themselves to charges of race-baiting in past attempts to revisit the Singh decision and its impact on Canada’s refugee system, the situation today is greatly changed. Perhaps there’s a constituency hungry to hear about such reform. “I know the vast majority of new Canadians feel that this is fundamentally unfair,” says Kenney. “That may sound counterintuitive to some people, but in point of fact, if you’ve waited for five or six years—and moreover, if you’re waiting now for five or six or seven years for sponsored relatives to come to the country legally—you get a little bit frustrated with the folks who just wander off the plane and get their work permit.”


A crackdown on queue-jumpers

  1. If they make it an issue, it will nullify all the efforts Kenney has made to court immigrants. His pathetic little tweets on Twitter that say "magnificent event with 'such and such immigrant group'. Pathetic pathetic. What a suck-up.

    I hope they do make it an issue and LOSE.

    • Sounds like Terren would be unswayed one way or another. Undoubtedly a citizen of Miller's Paradise, downtown Toronto; or him/her self once a beneficiary of Trudeaupia's refugee system. Or both.

      • Definitely am not an immigrant, my family's been here since the 1700s. Also not an inhabitant of nasty Toronto. A proud Westerner as a matter of fact.
        And I would be swayed to vote for the Conservatives,if they had a true Tory leader.

        • then what the hell do you care? this is a "conservative" position if ever there was one. it makes no sense to make some smug "i hope they lose" comment about this…

          smarten up

          • I will keep hoping they lose

          • I hope they lose. Why do you care?

      • Rete, your answer says more about your problems than anything else.

  2. Make no mistake, Mr. Kenney has launched a campaign of rhetoric against refugees. He wants Canadians to believe that most refugees who seek Canada's protection must be stopped before they get here. Don't play the numbers game – how many persons are we willing to let die? one, ten, a thousand or …? Yes, the refugee system needs strengthening but what needs to change? Support the Immigration and Refugee Board with sufficient staff appointments and an effective means to make good first decisions, implement a meaningful second stage, remove people quickly who are found not to be genuine refugees, ensure that all refugees who are in need of protection actually get it as quickly as possible, stop 'incentivizing' persons who are not refugees but make sure we don't turn away those who are genuinely in need of Canada's protection.

    • UNHCR 2008 numbers: not mine. Canada received 10% of all refugee applications tracked in 51 industrial countries last year. The USA received 13%. The USA was the single largest recipient. Canada was second. Canada, with our puny 33million population, realistically only reachable via car from (friendly) USA or aeroplane (mostly from or via democratic nations) is the world's second largest recipient of refugee claims. At $29,000 to $250,000 a pop, even the most bled of hearts must see that we are being played.

      • Please, those are just numbers of applicants. You have not cited any facts that prove your statement that Canada is being played. Now go find those facts rete, to prove your statement.

    • I hope Minister Kenny follows through. A good start would be to send back anyone who does not arrive here legally. No review by bleeding hearts, no ridiculous charter rights. Not approved as a refugee prior to landing, off you go. There are more than enough Canadians who we can spend our tax dollars on. Our first priority with immigrants must be with those that can support themselves and contribute to Canada.

      • Can we send you first?

        • Sorry junior. My ancestors were here long before Columbus. The ones that came later from Europe in the 17 & 18 hundreds did so on their own, not costing taxpayers bundles to teach them English. We have too many Canadian born with no job skills, we don't need to import more.
          Aside from that my wife spent $10000 to become a Canadian citizen and she had much needed skills and speaks better English than many that have been here for two generations so I see no reason to let frauds in because we have a bunch of bleeding hearts ruining our immigration system.

  3. Nothing like bashing immigrants to win votes. Ask Quebec's ADQ…

    • you're right. with David Miller, Bob Rae, McGuinty(s), the BQ, unions, and bleeding heart liberals in ample supply, there's plenty to bash. thanks for the reminder.

      • Dont forget Harper, Poillievre, Day, Kenney, McKay, Baird all the half educated reformatories, the corrupt corporate CEOS, the people who vote Conservative even though the policies are detrimental to themselves… Yes there is plenty to bash. Thanks for the reminder Mike.

  4. Jason for PM.

    • Oh yes. I would look forward to that bloodbath of an election.

  5. It is incredible how powerful this rhetoric can be. The vast majority of Canadians do not have a working knowledge of the refugee system, and no matter how accurate the oppositions comments are (as evinced by his insane 'tin-hat' comments. Seriously, he needs to go to university or something) most Canadians are not going to have the ability to comprehend the plethora of causes behind it. Nor will they sit down and consider the easily available alternatives. His hatred of outsiders reminds me of George Bush, as our refugee program helps Canada maintain its international status as a multicultural and welcoming society.

    • change the last line to "as our refugee program helps Canada maintain its international status as a multicultural and welcoming bunch of saps" and you're on to something.

      • thanks for proving Constantino's point corky. You dont understand the system at all.

  6. The recent reintroduction of visa requirements for Mexicans and Czechs was approved by 69% of Canadians polled. No Federal government decision in the last decade got such an approval rating. I think Mr. Kenney is on to something.

    • Damn rights he's onto something. The whole immigration issue has been ignored for 10 years or more. Since the early 1990s, the entire debate has been framed as follows: either you favour A) The status quo, B) Even more immigration, or C) You're a racist. Well, many of us, perhaps the majority of Canadians, would consider ourselves to be D) Immigration has been too high for too long, and needs to be brought back to the sane levels of the early 1980s (80,000 to 120,000 per year, depending on the jobs market).

      Ironically, it was Trudeau who had the brains and the balls to cut immigration rates down to below 90,000 during the early-80s recession. In 1985, Mulroney boosted it to over 200,000, after which it became gospel that you either favoured that level (or higher) or you were a deranged bigot. (Remember, standard economic orthodoxy back then was that Canadian wages were too high to compete with the US, and Mulroney openly touted the higher immigration rate as the "cure" for our allegedly excessive incomes.) Now an entire generation of immigrants has remained mired in poverty because they came at a time when overall immigration rates were much too high, and there simply wasn't enough employment for all of them. We've created our very own multicultural underclass. How nice.

    • Not really, unless you see the questions asked, where they contacted people, the size of the polling sample it's just a statement. You do know that any poll can be twisted to serve partisan needs. Jeez 69% really.

  7. Great article. Really well written.

  8. Sometimes I don't understand our CPC. This strikes me as an issue where the CPC approach is eminently reasonable, and might actually gain some (grudging) support from undecideds or soft liberals. Whatever disagreements that some folks may have with the approach are easily handled by some minor / effective accommodations or by reasoned discussion.

    And then all of that potential goodwill is dismissed by the tinfoil hat comment; perhaps a minority government is as much as the CPC desires.

  9. As someone suggested in the comments, which includes me…I am not sure what is right or wrong with the immigration policies or who is right and who is wrong. However, any policy/law that requires change cannot and must not be ideology driven, which appears to be the case here.

  10. It is crucial to change the current refugee legislation, policies and procedures – it is definitely broken and unfair. Undocumented refugee claimants are abusing the system and are being coached on how to do so. It does not serve Canada well at the moment nor the legitimate refugees. This is not about ideology – practical changes must be made. Staffing up the IRBs will not change the fact that the intake process is deeply flawed. I think this would make an excellent and significant real policy issue to be debated during an election. Following that, Canada can improve the immigration system, which serves us fairly well, but could work better with changes to ensure that we are attracting and carefully screening the right mix of people.

  11. http://www.notcanada.com
    Tories is the best party to vote no matter what.They do good to all canadians especially middle and poor class.
    They give you family cheque ,child support where NDP,LIBERALS would take it away.

    • WTF? Are you on Earth?

      • eff wad…..

  12. Just what queue exactly does Kenney think these people are "jumping"? Under the current system they would not be allowed in anyway. Well, they would as Temporary Foreign Workers/soon to be illegally here, I guess. But they sure as hell wouldn't qualify under the points/38 occupations system. Even if "bogus" (and clearly at least some of them are not), they want to be here, and it certainly seems that the economy needs them. Perhaps we need to better manage our "queues" rather than just build walls.

    • Knob, once they land it takes years and lots of your money to get rid of them…….

  13. Stopped reading after the Fraser Institute was used as a supposedly credible source.

    • Martin Collacott (not sure if I spelled his name right) of the Fraser Institute is a former federal Immigration Minister and is one of the few researchers in the country to speak frankly and truthfully on the subject of immigration without sugar-coating. That's why he's getting attention. His research is rock solid, and he's getting an audience because of it.

      • That should read "…former federal Immigration Official…"

        • I acknowledge the source may have worked for the Imm. Dept. but stand by my position.

          • Mike: You perhaps have a more creditable source of information? Like perhaps Tyee news?

          • well you're comments look like they come from CPC HQ so I wouldnt be so cocky.