Fixing the refugee mess -

Fixing the refugee mess

With Liberal support likely, Kenney’s move looks like a winner


Too often, when immigration issues are on the table, new Canadians are discussed as if they form a monolithic group, all uniformly anxious for the system to be as porous as possible when it comes to letting into Canada any who wish to follow them.

Back in the 2008 election campaign, I was reminded that this is far from the case on the occasion of Stéphane Dion announcing the Liberal immigration platform at the Shiang Garden restaurant in Richmond, B.C. The mostly Chinese-Canadian crowd offered only tepid applause that day for Dion’s big-ticket promise of $400 million to unclog the refugee system. But they enthusiastically cheered his pledge—delivered almost as an afterthought—to streamline customs processing for frequent business visitors to Canada.

Dion and his campaign aides far overestimated the crowd’s interest in the plight of refugees, while undervaluing keen interest in the practicalities of business travel, at least among the slice of the ethnic vote represented at that luncheon.

Watching Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney unveil his refugee reforms today, it struck me that he is unlikely to fall prey to that sort of mistaken assumption. Kenney has spent much of his career in federal politics preoccupied with narrowing the Liberals’ longstanding lead over Conservatives when it comes to support among recent immigrants. For years he tirelessly led Tory outreach to those hard-to-get voters—trying to figure out what matters to them—prior to Prime Minister Stephen Harper assigning him, inevitably, the Citizenship and Immigration portfolio in the fall of 2008.

So before Kenney announced his overhaul of the refugee system today, it’s a safe bet he carefully considered how his new rules are likely to be greeted by the diverse urban, visible-minority communities he courts. I suspect he has correctly figured out he can sell most of them on making it harder for phony refugees to clog up the works and easier for genuine ones to to be accepted.

Still, Kenney knows the old system, which has created a backlog of 60,000 waiting for their claims to be heard—not to mention 38,000 rejected asylum-seekers whose “whereabouts are unknown”—has its staunch defenders. Certain immigration lawyers and consultants spring to mind.

“This government is no longer going to allow the enemies of reform and of change, who are absolutely wedded to the dysfunctional status quo, to stand in the way of a fair system that allows faster protection to real victims of persecution,” he said at a news conference today.

The system he’s had it with has proven hopelessly vulnerable to gaming. When a would-be refugee arrives in Canada, it takes 28 days just to get the initial personal information form filled out, often incompletely. Then maybe a year and a half to get the claimant in front of a refugee board hearing. After that, a failed applicant might spend three years appealing all the way up to the Federal Court. And years more can pass before rejected claimants are actually removed from Canada, unless they disappear in the interim.

Kenney proposes a brisker process: eight days of information-gathering on the claimant; a first hearing within 60 days; an appeal, if need be, before a new Refugee Appeal Division within four months; a Federal Court appeal within four months after that; and, finally, a failed claimant sent packing inside a year. (The key change could be that initial rapid information-gathering stage: there’s nothing like it now, so disputed facts and incomplete paperwork often undermine the process from the very outset.)

The NDP pounced on another part of Kenney’s proposal—his plan to draw up a list of democracies with good human rights records and deal a bit more expeditiously with individuals from these “safe countries of origin.” A claimant from one of the listed countries would get the same initial hearing as any other, but no access to the new Refugee Appeal Division, although a final Federal Court appeal would still be possible. Is cutting out one level of review for claimants from countries that don’t typically generate refugees really “dangerous,” as the NDP’s Olivia Chow heatedly charged today?

Liberals don’t seem to think so. MP Maurizio Bevilacqua, the party’s immigration critic, was muted in his reaction. He told Maclean’s he’ll be suggesting that the immigration minister retain the discretion to allow a claimant from a safe country of origin to go to the Refugee Appeal Divison in an exceptional case—a tweak. But Bevilacqua raised no fundamental objections. He’s mainly concerned about whether the $540 million over five years the Tories are allocating to these reforms will be enough to make them happen.

So it’s looking likely the Liberals will vote for the package. Given how controversial refugee issues have always been, passing this legislation without much outcry in a minority House would rank as a feat—testimony, in a government where cabinet ministers often switch chairs too quickly to master their files, to the advantages of having one who served long, intense apprenticeship in the issues now on his desk.


Fixing the refugee mess

  1. Good post. While I certainly dislike Mr. Kenney based on some of his previous work (i.e. his selective editing of the Citizenship Guide), I have to give credit where it's due. From what I've seen, this looks like a pretty good plan.

    The distinction between safe and unsafe countries of origin could be problematic. I don't see it being too problematic for the refugees themselves since they all have access to at least one appeal, but it could definitely become a political football. I find myself wondering which list Israel and Palestine would find themselves on.

    I would suggest an objective device to distinguish the lists. For example, calculate the number of refugees approved from each country of origin over the past 5 years, relative to the population of that country. Then establish a line – for example, the 25 countries that produce the most refugees as a proportion of population make up the 'unsafe' list.

  2. I heard him talking about it on As it Happens. Sure, he's a fast talker, but he was also ready to attack and demonize any group that might criticise his plan. One of Harper's best students of meanminded partisan divisiveness.

  3. I think creating a "safe country" list is a great idea. We have to be careful who we bring into this country. If there are countries that are more prone to having Terrorists, Pedophiles, etc., those are the type of people we do not want in our Country.
    I also believe, the instant a refugee or Immigrant are no longer allowed access to our Country and are informed they must leave, their name should be published on a Web site so all can see. This will help Canada to rid themselves of unwanted people who will run and hide from deportation.
    I also believe there should be an instant communication sent to the Welfare Department, OHIP, Health care, and whatever other Benefit they would have been entitled to…… to inform these Agencies that these people are no longer elligible for assistance at the Canadian Taxpayers expense, and they should be removed from all Benefits allotted them as an Immigrant or Refugee immediately.

    • I think you miss the point of the proposed list. Refugees and asylum seekers from "unsafe" countries are precisely those who would be fast tracked. Claimants from "safe" countries would become disadvantaged.

    • So Ken, how does one country have a proclivity to produce pedophiles? Places like Thailand have problems with our pedophiles so should we punish them for our pervs?

      Hopefully Kenney is less kneejerk than your logic is.

  4. "Is cutting out one level of review for claimants from countries that don't typically generate refugees really “dangerous,” as the NDP's Oliva Chow heatedly charged today?"

    couldn't tell you.

    Is it legal? I'm surprised its been in the news cycle this long already and it hasn't had to be defended against charges of discrimination.

    • We already discriminate against various countries, ie for some we require visas, but not for others. This is perfectly reasonable, and seems to me, notwithstanding NDP arguments, one of the most useful aspects of Kenney's proposal.

      • That's not what I'm asking. If you could honestly tell me our system treats those who do have to apply for a visa differently depending on which country they're from then you'd have some sort of point, but I don't think you can.

        • Obviously, I missed your meaning, but your clarification didn't help either. Are you asking whether there are subcategories of visa requirements? Frankly, I have no idea, but someone better versed in immigration proceedings might.

          Going back to your point of discrimination, why exactly is it that you believe we cannot discriminate against various countries? As I pointed out above, we clearly do. Furthermore, isn't it up to Canadians to decide which countries and what circumstances conform to our definition of refugee?

          You brought up the point of legality. Are you referring to Canadian law or conforming to international statutes regarding refugee claimants?

          • Doesn't matter. You think its discrimination. Whether its permissible or not is a different question.

  5. Even though the minister is a biggot, there is no denying that he's got the right ideas on this topic!

    Good job Mr. Minister!

    • Biggot? Based on what you f$%k stick?

  6. Next time you hear Kenney sounding outraged and indignant over the length of timne refugees wait, remember that it's his own damned fault.

  7. do we really need more canadians? CAn't we just do with the crop we've got here? Honestly do we really want ethnic minorities to outnumber white people here?

  8. Thomas Walkom points out that the Conservatives caused the backlog in the first place by refusing to appoint people to fill empty positions on the Immigration and Refugee Board; and that their changes will make the system more arbitrary and political, with cabinet deciding what countries they would define as "safe".–re

  9. The argument about Mexico is ludicrous. If Canadian tourists can find a safe part of Mexico to go to; so can their own citizens move to a different part of the country to avoid the drug wars. While this is a sad circumstance; it should not be up to Canad to solve that countries problems when it's citizens have options in their own country. This is also true woith countries within the EU where it's citizens are free to move wherever they choose.