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Legal community decries proposed refugee reform bill

Legal community decries proposed refugee reform bill

We the North
We the North
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TORONTO: Refugee and human rights lawyers are outraged at the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, proposed by Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, on March 30, 2010. The bill is the culmination of a xenophobic smear campaign against refugees, and a self-congratulatory attempt to misrepresent Canada’s treatment of refugees.

The operating principle of the bill is one of suspicion of refugees and hostility to the very act of making a claim. Kenney states that Canada is a destination country for people planning to make bogus refugee claims and points to the increasing number of refused claims as proof. Again, refugees have been used as scapegoats to justify political interference in what is supposed to be an independent refugee determination process.

The proposed bill will enable the Minister to select "safe countries" based on political and diplomatic interests whereby people fleeing those countries will have no right of appeal and face expedited deportation. Katherine Ramsey, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer states that such a measure is contrary to the principles of refugee determination under the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Canada is a signatory. She warns, "Jason Kenney is essentially operating his own refugee system. His bill completely flies in the face of the foundation of refugee protection, which is to assess risk on an individual basis. Country of origin is not central to that determination."

The bill sacrifices the few legal safeguards afforded to people fleeing persecution, violence and forced displacement in the name of efficiency and expediency. It will abolish the existence of an oral hearing before an independent adjudicator, replacing it with an interview before a public servant within just eight days of making a claim, practically limiting access to legal representation. The unworkable timelines will also make it virtually impossible for the claimant to gather evidence required to support their claim. Jacques Roy, staff lawyer at the French Legal Aid Services of the Francophone Centre of Toronto warns that the proposal is thus "a fast-track to removal. It values expediency at the cost of due process. Already, the cards are stacked against someone who has had to flee their home against their will. Refugees will not have a meaningful chance to be heard and will be assessed by a bureaucrat. The proposed timelines of an initial eight days prior to interview and then 60 days for a hearing are unrealistic. Refugee claimants are prejudiced by this proposal."

The government claims that the system is saddled with long delays, squarely laying the blame on refugees for exercising their limited rights to regularize their status. However, prominent refugee lawyer, Raoul Boulakia states that "the government created a backlog of cases by under-resourcing the Immigration and Refugee Board. This could be resolved by hiring enough qualified Board Members, through an apolitical and impartial process. Instead it proposes to have officers without requisite independence or expertise make decisions. This threatens to make refugee decision-making more arbitrary."

The proposed bill will achieve Kenney"s goal of reducing Canada"s refugee acceptance rates and returning larger numbers of people to risk when they do not meet the requirements of an unworkable system. Such was the case of Grise, a young woman from Mexico who was deported to her death last summer when her claim was refused. Zahra Dhanani, Legal Director for the Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC) says, "adopting a two-tier triage system could prove fatal for women and sexual minorities living in countries deemed to be "democracies." We have seen over and over again that countries may adopt principles in legislation but in effect there are many serious human rights violations occurring. The proposed changes will disproportionately impact women and LGBTQ people, especially in a system that has already slashed refugee acceptance rates by 60%."

* The Immigration Legal Committee (ILC) is an autonomous working group of the Law Union of Ontario and is a subcommittee of No One is Illegal Toronto, a grassroots immigrant and refugee rights organization. The ILC is composed of law students, legal workers and lawyers seeking to provide support to campaigns for immigrant justice and information and resources to organizations serving immigrant communities in Toronto.