SPECIAL REPORT

TURNING UP THE HEAT

JOHN GEDDES November 12 2001
SPECIAL REPORT

TURNING UP THE HEAT

JOHN GEDDES November 12 2001

TURNING UP THE HEAT

JOHN GEDDES

When it comes to Ottawa’s reaction to Sept. 11, it’s as if there are two very different governments at work. There’s the hard-nosed, activist one represented by Justice Minister Anne McLellan, who has divided cabinet with her proposed law to expand police powers by introducing measures like preventive

arrests. And then there’s the more reticent one represented by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan, who has so far resisted every effort to get her to admit that Canada has any need to tighten up its rules on admitting refugees. Odd, given the pressures the federal Liberals faced after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There was never any outcry in Canada for the sort of

controversial law-enforcement tools that McLellan proposes. But from that terrible morning on, the attention of Ottawa’s critics—from U.S. politicians to former senior federal officials and the official Opposition—has focused on Canada’s allegedly lax refugee policies.

That pressure seems bound to grow, not ease. George W. Bush injected new urgency into the debate last week by directwith the U.S. in some areas, but shows no sign of bending on refugee policy. Instead, she suggests the Americans should get their own act together. “Since Sept. 11, they are very worried, feeling insecure, and they would really like, unfortunately, to find someone else to blame,” Caplan said. “Everyone knows that Canada’s immigration policy had nothing whatever to do with what happened on Sept. 11, and that all of the 19 hijackers had been in the United States for quite some time.”

ing White House officials to take steps to “deny potential terrorists easy entry from Canada or Mexico,” and push for “maximum possible compatibility of immigration, customs and visa policies” with the two neighbouring countries. (One issue on the table: visitors’ visas for citizens of Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden’s homeland, which the U.S. requires but Canada does not.) Caplan supports co-operation

The attacks on Canada’s lax refugee policies are intensifying, but Ottawa shows no sign of bending

She is on solid ground when it comes to the actual hijackers. But Canada is not entirely in the clear—notably because of the mysterious case of Nabil al-Marabh, a suspected operative of terrorist kingpin bin Laden who was arrested in Chicago in late September. Born in Kuwait, al-Marabh arrived in Canada in 1994 claiming to be a refugee. In the end, he was turned down —but never deported. He was caught trying to enter the United States last June with forged documents and handed over to Canadian authorities, then released after a hearing by a Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board adjudicator when his uncle, a Toronto copy-shop owner, posted a $ 15,000 bond. The 34-year-old is now being held in a New York City jail as U.S. investigators try to piece together the puzzle of his alleged ties to international terrorism.

But the possibility that al-Marabh is the Canadian connection to Sept. 11 is far from the only issue that puts Ottawa’s refugee policies in question. There are broader concerns about terrorists and criminals with no links to bin Ladens net| work, like Tamil and Sikh radicals. Not to mention more mundane questions: how tight should the system be to prevent abuse by those who might be harmless enough, but are exploiting the refugee process to bypass the normal immigration stream? Critics claim Canadas system is so wide open that it is a magnet to all sorts of dubious refugees, from the dangerous to the merely dishonest. “These people move around and do asylum-shopping,” says James Bissett, a former executive director

of the Canadian Immigration Service.

Caplan argues that Canada is no softer on phoney refugees than the United States. To back that up, she points to the numbers: Canada approved 58 per cent of refugee claims last year, not far off the 53-per-cent rate in the United States. But critics say a closer look throws doubt on her claim that the two countries are almost equally stringent. First of all, given its smaller population, Canada gets a disproportionate number of claims—37,713 in 2000, compared with 84,000 in the United States, with about 10 times the population. As well, those approval percentages apply only to cases carried to a conclusion. Left out are claims that were dropped before being decided on their merits.

Counting in discontinued cases dramatically alters the comparison between the two countries. In Canada, fewer than one in five cases is abandoned in midstream. But in the United States, about half of all cases are dropped before they reach a final ruling, although in some cases individuals are accepted into the U.S. through other avenues, such as a special program for Haitians. Still, when those never-completed cases are lumped into the statistics, the overall U.S. approval rate plummets to 26 per cent, while Canada’s slips less precipitously to 48 per cent. No wonder Canada has a reputation for going easier on claimants.

Not surprisingly, critics of Canada’s refugee system focus on this sharper contrast—the U.S. accepting about a quarter of those who seek 1 asylum, while Canada £ takes in nearly half. Bissett I argues Canada doesn’t know nearly enough about most of the individuals who filed refugee claims last year to justify accepting such a high proportion. “These are people who simply walk into the country, for the most part with false documents,” he told a Senate committee recently. “They make a refugee claim, and then they are home free. We do not know anything about them.”

Bissett urges Ottawa to clamp down harder on those who arrive at Canadian airports, ports or U.S. border crossings, and instead do much more to help the millions of refugees surviving in harsh conditions abroad—like those who are fleeing the bombing in Afghanistan. “Real refugees are in camps, and I’ve seen them,” Bissett says. “They are not 18to 35-yearold guys who have the street smarts and the money to buy their way in.”

There is little chance, though, of Ottawa heeding Bissett’s advice. The current federal policy will remain largely intact under Caplan’s new Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which was passed last week and will soon be enacted into law. It’s important to distinguish between

the two sets of new arrivals covered by the legislation. Immigrants are chosen to come to Canada because they fit the profile of newcomers Ottawa wants, usually because they have in-demand job skills or are joining close family members already living in Canada. Refugees must persuade the Immigration and Refugee Board that they are fleeing persecution.

The new law will make key changes to the way the IRB operates. Currently, twomember panels hear most refugee claims, and those who are turned down can apply for a Federal Court review. Under the new law, a single board member will rule at an initial stage; those who are rejected will get a second kick at the can before a new IRB appeals division. If the appeals division

also says no, there will still be the option of asking for a court review. Despite the addition of another level, IRB chairman Peter Showier predicts the new system will prove more efficient than sending disputed cases direcdy to the court. He says the specialists on the new IRB appeals division will have detailed understanding of refugee issues, including conditions in foreign countries, that federal judges lack. “They will be aware of what issues really need to be resolved,” Showier says.

But Bissett says Caplan’s legislation will do nothing to shorten the years of delays associated with appeals and judicial reviews—a new IRB division can only

stretch out the process. And on what he sees as the main problem with the system, the hot-button issue of so-called undocumented asylum-seekers, the new law is silent. The main thrust of Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day’s recent attacks on the government’s anti-terrorism policies has been to call for mandatory detention and stringent background checks on those who apply for refugee status with no identity papers.

That’s already standard practice in the United States. But Canada’s policy assumes those who arrive without documents to prove who they are (about 40 per cent of all claimants) generally pose no special danger. Showier defends that approach, arguing that many legitimate

refugees use fake passports to flee danger in their home countries, then destroy them rather than admit to Canadian authorities how they got out. Some, he says, are reluctant to show even real documents to Canadian officials. “If they come from countries with totalitarian histories, there is tremendous distrust of state authorities,” he says.

Critics like Bissett scoff at giving claimants that much benefit of the doubt. He says most who get rid of documents do so to cover their tracks. That sort of skepticism seems bound to increase with a spate of cases given heavy media attention since Sept. 11. Along with al-Marabh,

there is Ahmed Ressam, another denied refugee claimant, who was caught trying to slip into the U.S. in late 1999 with a plan to bomb Los Angeles International Airport, and Mohamed Zeki Mahjoub, an Egyptian now in a Toronto jail awaiting deportation, who entered Canada in 1995 as a refugee and is accused of belonging to a terrorist group funded by bin Laden. These cases and others that raise concerns may represent just a handful of the more than 30,000 refugee claims filed in Canada every year. But in the post-Sept. 11 climate, and with the White House focusing on Canada’s immigration laws, those supporting Ottawa’s generous refugee process had better get used to being on the defensive. CD