How to fix our broken refugee system

Posted on September 16, 2009 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates – Opinion – How to fix our broken refugee system
September 16, 2009.   Carol Goar

The issue is ripe for a crackdown. The government has already hinted it wants to rewrite the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

The sales pitch almost writes itself: Bogus refugees are overwhelming our borders. We must set limits. We are becoming a global laughingstock.

Since most Canadians know little about refugee policy and have fresh memories of Ottawa slapping visa restrictions on Mexico and the Czech Republic to curb a surge in fraudulent refugee claims, this message might work.

But abandoning Canada’s tradition of offering a fair hearing to everyone who arrives at our borders would be a draconian remedy. We would be condemning some asylum seekers to death or violence at the hands of brutal drug lords, violent militias or vindictive spouses.

It’s true that our refugee determination process is excruciatingly slow, error-prone and full of bottlenecks. It is also true that our courts are clogged with appeals from rejected refugee claimants.

But there are better ways to fix these problems than throwing barriers in front of people fleeing mortal danger.

Peter Showler, who chaired the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada from 1999 to 2002, has drawn up a plan to untangle the current mess. The Maytree Foundation, which helped sponsor his research, released his report Fast, Fair and Final: Reforming Canada’s Refugee System last week.

His basic argument is Canada’s philosophy is sound, but its refugee system is badly broken.

He outlines how the government could eliminate the current backlog of 60,000 refugee claims, prevent endless appeals and remove failed applicants promptly.

Under his scheme, every asylum seeker would have a chance to tell his or her story but no one would be able to stay in Canada for years, filing appeals, demanding risk assessments and setting down roots.

Is his blueprint feasible?

On preliminary examination, yes. It makes organizational and financial sense.

Will it be taken seriously in Ottawa? In all likelihood, no. Quick fixes are the order of the day.

Here is what Showler is recommending:

• Streamline the system.

Under his plan, the convoluted process of getting a clear yes or no would be reduced to three steps, leading to a favourable decision within six months, a final deportation order within 13 months.

• Staff the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) with qualified people. It is now loaded with political appointees. The $107,000-a-year jobs are treated as patronage plums.

Under Showler’s model, an independent panel of experts would select IRB members on the basis of knowledge, experience and demonstrated decision-making ability.

• Set up a specialized tribunal to hear appeals. The only option now available to rejected claimants is to apply to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review. That can take two years.

Under Showler’s model, unfavourable decisions could be appealed immediately to a new appeal division of the IRB. Hearings would be conducted by a lawyer with more than three years’ experience in the field. His or her ruling could only be challenged on strict legal grounds.

• Require refugee claimants who intend to request sanctuary on humanitarian grounds to do it at the outset rather than using it as a last-ditch tactic to avoid deportation.

• Limit the role of the Canadian Border Services. There is no need for its agents to conduct long interviews to determine whether a migrant is eligible to apply for refugee status. Their job is to identify security risks.

These reforms would require work. The easier option – the one favoured by the government – would be to conduct cursory arrival interviews and turn back supplicants from countries Ottawa deems safe.

Discarding fairness is one way to tidy up a mess. It has never been the Canadian way.

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