When the United Nations High Commission for Refugees awarded its prestigious Nansen Medal to Canada last autumn, it marked the first time that the prize had been given to an entire nation. But Canada’s willingness to accept refugees has led ever-greater numbers of foreigners to claim refugee status in order to gain permanent entry. Last week the Mulroney government moved to address the problem, announcing a radical revision of its refugee policy. Said Immigration Minister Benoît Bouchard: “The legislation affirms this government’s commitment to protecting genuine refugees who need our help; it demonstrates our resolve to curb abuse and our commitment to increase immigration.”
But Bouchard’s announcement met a rising chorus of criticism.
Among the charges: that Canada’s reputation as a safe haven had suffered serious damage. Said New Democratic Party spokesman Michael Cassidy: “I think we’d better return the Nansen
Medal, because we don’t deserve it.”
The result of an arduous 214-year effort, Bill C-55 is intended to stem a flood of bogus refugees—not turn away those who are fleeing persecution in their homelands. The swelling numbers of refugees have created a major backlog of individual claims. The problem is growing because of the expanding size of the worldwide homeless population and the tighter immigration laws in many countries, which tend to direct the flood to Canada. At the same time, the government is under intense pressure from church groups and other organizations to give the benefit of the doubt to as many newcomers as possible.
Under the new legislation, anyone claiming refugee status would undergo an initial assessment within 48 hours of arriving in Canada. The assessment would be carried out by an immigra« tion department official I and a member of a newzly created Refugee 9 Board. Those who already have refugee sta-
tus in another country, those coming from “safe third countries” and those with clearly unfounded claims will be deported to their country of origin within 72 hours. Appeals of the panel’s decision to the Federal Court of Canada will be possible only from outside Canada.
Applicants with an arguable claim for refugee status will receive an oral hearing before two members of the Refugee Board within 10 days. If either board member accepts the claim, the newcomer can apply for landed immigrant status. Rejected applicants can appeal the board’s decision to the Federal Court, but appeals can only be made on points of law. On the advice of organizations such as the new Refugee Board, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and refugee-aid groups, the cabinet will establish a list of safe third countries to which unsuccessful applicants can be deported.
The new measures—expected to cost as much as $39 million the first yearwill reduce the number of steps in the refugee determination process to three from eight. Federal officials estimated that the rules could result in up to 50 per cent of refugee claimants being turned away immediately at Canadian ports of entry.
Last year false refugees arrived in large numbers from such countries as
Portugal and Turkey, severely straining government services. And in August 155 Sri Lankan Tamils applied for refugee status after being cast adrift off the coast of Newfoundland in two lifeboats. Alarmed by clear signs that
the system was breaking down, Ottawa introduced a so-called “administrative review” that attempted to clear the backlog by effectively lowering admission standards.
In February further steps were taken. They included a requirement that applicants from the United States wait outside Canada until their cases were heard and that travellers passing through Canada from 98 other countries obtain transit visas. The visa requirement was designed to prevent bogus refugees from entering the country as visitors. But there were few signs that abuses were being curbed. Declared Bouchard: “Canadians are ready now for this kind of legislation because they realize there are more nonrefugees than refugees arriving at our door.”
Still, refugee and church groups condemned the government’s legislation, demanding either outright withdrawal or wholesale revision. Nancy Nicholls, executive member of the Inter-Church Committee for Refugees in Toronto, called the government’s decision to deny some refugees an oral hearing “incredible.” Declared Nicholls: “This may be faster, but speed without justice is unacceptable. What we’ve got is a more restrictive law.”
In Ottawa, Amnesty International spokesman Michael Schelew said that
by limiting appeals to points of law, the government was refusing to recognize that most refugee claims depend on questions of fact and the credibility of the applicant. Lome Waldman, spokesman for the Coalition for a Just Refugee and Immigration Policy, a national network of more than 120 groups formed after the government’s emergency measures were announced in February, was even harsher. Said Waldman: “What the government is doing is deporting refugees to a third country to get them to do our dirty work and send the refugees back home to be tortured.”
Government spokesmen insisted last week that Ottawa would compile its list of safe third countries carefully and that as a result no one deported from Canada would be in danger. Said Minister of State for Immigration Gerald Weiner: “No
one’s life, limb or liberty will be at risk.” Bouchard told Maclean's that the government was even willing to consider the diplomatically delicate step of declaring the United States an unsafe third country —at least for certain refugees —because of a new U.S. policy of deporting applicants to countries like El Salvador. Countries are usually only placed in the unsafe category if they are racked by war or civil strife. Both ministers maintained that officials appointed to the Refugee Board would have sufficient expertise to identify genuine refugees during the two assessment procedures, making lengthy court appeals unnecessary.
The proposed Canadian rules compare favorably with those in force in most European nations and the United States. Immigration department spokesmen said last week that the number of nonrefugee immigrants allowed into Canada next year will be increased—to 175,000, according to some reports—when the 1988 target levels are announced in June. Still, Rabbi Gunther Plaut, who conducted a one-man federal commission on refugee policy in 1985, said he was disappointed by the government’s proposed legislation, even though it adopted some of his recommendations. Said Plaut: “I am deeply saddened that the government has given in to demands for unnecessarily restrictive legislation within months of having accepted an award for our huge hearts.” As the opposition parties prepared to fight for major changes in Bouchard’s bill, thousands of people seeking entry to Canada were waiting to see whether the new policy would uphold Canada’s humanitarian tradition.
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