Libby speaking up for a fair immigration and refugee system

House of Commons

Bill C-11, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Federal Courts Act

Ms. Libby Davies (Vancouver East, NDP):
Madam Speaker, I am pleased to have the opportunity to rise in the House today to speak to Bill C-11.

I will focus my comments on the system overall. For many Canadians, and certainly internationally, Canada has a reputation as being a place that is welcoming and open not only to immigrants but to refugees. The NDP believes the cornerstone of any refugee determination system is that the process has to be fast and fair.

In some ways the proof of the system is in the individual cases. While we cannot go into individual cases here, as MPs, we are very familiar with the process as it relates to individuals cases in our constituency offices. I know, over my 13 years in this place, sometimes there is a sense of heartbreak of what people go through in terms of the refugee system, the appeal process, the wait times and the amount of stress and anxiety.

It is really important that we devise a system that is fair to people, a system that is not open to abuse but is fair and fast. This is a primary consideration. As one my colleagues said earlier, we want to ensure that each case is dealt with on its merits. It is very easy to make generalizations.

The NDP has always advocated for a fair and fast refugee determination process. We believe part of that program should be that all appointments to the IRB should be done by an independent appointment commissioner, with very clear criteria for expertise in refugee and immigration matters. It should be a merit-based appointment.

I know that one of our former colleagues, Ed Broadbent, laid out a very clear process for doing this. Unfortunately, it was not adopted by the government. We got to the point where we were so fed up with these kinds of political appointments on very important boards such as the IRB. It is very important to have criteria and to have a merit-based appointment.

I also agree, as my other colleagues have said today, it is important that we ensure the system does not allow unscrupulous immigration consultants to, in effect, exploit people’s hardship, anxiety and stress. Ensuring the system works in a way that there is proper legal aid representation for claimants is very important. Unfortunately we do not see measures to that effect.

We also believe it is very important there be an emphasis on clearing the backlog that has accumulated by hiring refugee protection officers to focus on this. I think every government I have ever heard since I have been here has claimed that it wants to address this issue, but it never gets addressed. This is very important to us.

We also think it is very important to set up the refugee appeal division so consistent decisions can be made based on law and fact. We know Parliament has mandated such an appeal division. Since 2001, it has been ignored. There are some provisions in the bill today that would allow this to go forward, but we have concerns about it as well.

To us, the right to appeal is an essential and fundamental element of a fair process. This must be fully contained within the bill and the implementation.

While we agree there are some merits to the bill, such as it seeks to speed things up and it provides more funding, it appears that much of the increased funding would go to the Canada Border Services Agency to remove failed claimants and to the justice department to appoint more federal court judges.

It is also important to note that the required funding needs to be given to hire permanent refugee protection officers to clear the backlog, as I mentioned earlier. Where that money goes in the system and whether it is actually to deal with the individual cases and to help people deal with the processing is very important.

We also have very serious concerns about the bill, and I think this has been articulated very well in the House during the debate on the bill by various parties. The bill would create a refugee claims process that includes the safe countries of origin. Our understanding is that would give the minister the power to create two classes of refugees, those with the right to appeal and those without.

I deal with quite a few organizations in my community that are very knowledgeable. They are advocacy organizations and they have looked over the bill and commented on it. The Rainbow Refugee Committee in Vancouver has done incredible work on helping claimants who are fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation or gender identity and it has very serious concerns. I will quote from its letter to the minister. It states:

—based on a decade of on-the-ground experience with refugees who are making SOGI-based claims, we are deeply concerned about other aspects of the proposed legislation. Our members have fled countries where they have been under surveillance, arrested, imprisoned, extorted, and for some, tortured, because of their sexuality or gender identity. Many have been physically and/or sexually assaulted, often by police or other officials charged with maintaining religious or morality laws. Survival has required keeping silent, being vigilant and remaining hidden.

The organization goes on to state:

Asking those people who have left these kinds of conditions to tell their story to an anonymous government official within eight days, and then rendering a decision within 60 days undermines their chance for a fair decision. People who have lived a stigmatized identity and who have experienced trauma, need time and trust before they can speak about their experiences.

That is one example of some of the concerns about the process now contained in the bill to be implemented, if it is approved. These organizations are very familiar with the history of refugee claims and deal with individual cases and act as advocates. They need to be listened to very closely.

We also know that Amnesty International, speaking on this same question of the safe countries of origin, has pointed out that:

—over the course of nearly fifty years of human rights research around the world we have consistently highlighted it is not possible to definitively categorize countries as safe or unsafe when it comes to human rights. We are also very concerned that decisions about which countries to include on any such “safe country of origin” list will almost inevitably be influenced by considerations other than human rights, including trading relationships and security cooperation with other governments.

I believe this is a very serious question and any bill that confers discretion and power on the minister, especially something as fundamental as a refugee system, and gives the minister the power to say that one country is a country of safe origin and that this one is not could potentially be very problematic. I know there is a lot of concern in the community about the centralization of power to the minister and we want to ensure it is addressed when the bill goes to committee.

The New Democrats believe the refugee determination process should be both fast and fair. There is still debate about whether the bill meets that criteria. We certainly support the intention to streamline and speed up the process, but there are provisions in the bill that would still prevent all refugee claimants from being treated fairly and equally.

In committee we will look to amending this flawed bill to ensure that all refugee claimants receive fair and equal treatment by eliminating the safe countries of origin clause. We hope the government, as it has said, will work in good faith with opposition parties and include some of the groups I have mentioned.

There are certainly others. The Canadian Council for Refugees would be a major one. These people are experts. They know the system. They know what it is like on the ground. They know about helping people with no vested interest. They do not make money out of this. They are not the consultants who can sometimes be very unscrupulous.

It will be very important when the bill goes to committee that we hear from some of these key witnesses. If the bill is about producing a better system, then the proof of that will be in listening to those key organizations and ensuring their concerns are addressed. We are prepared to do that. We are prepared to have this bill go to committee. We are prepared to have that serious discussion at committee and get right into it in a detailed way. That is what the legislative process should be about. At the end of the day, we must ensure that this idea that Canada has a good reputation is actually reflected in the legislation before us.