FOCUS ON IMMIGRATION

Is Canada a soft touch?

Refugee acceptance rates skyrocket

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 7 1994
FOCUS ON IMMIGRATION

Is Canada a soft touch?

Refugee acceptance rates skyrocket

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 7 1994

Is Canada a soft touch?

FOCUS ON IMMIGRATION

Refugee acceptance rates skyrocket

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

In the beginning, it seemed like a perfect professional marriage. In 1989, Bill Bauer retired from the external affairs (now foreign affairs) department after a 37-year career that included tours as ambassador to Korea and Thailand and his final position as ambassador-at-large to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Two years later, Bauer, now 68, was appointed a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in Toronto. That position involves judging the legitimacy of claims by refugee applicants wanting to live in Canada. After his many years abroad, Bauer said: “I thought I could bring a particular expertise to the work.” He began in June, 1991, and was reappointed to a new term a year and a half later. But last March, five months before that term was to expire, Bauer withdrew his name from consideration for reappointment to the $85,000-ayear post. The atmosphere at the board, he explained, had become “coercive.” Said Bauer: “It is a complete and utter mess [where] the only real goal is to accept as many applications as possible.”

That assertion, not surprisingly, is denied by senior IRB officials. “That is simply not true,” said Michael Schelew, the deputy chairman of the board in charge of refugee claims. “What is most important to the board is that judgments be sound, whether they are positive or negative.” But it is true that since Immigration Minister Sergio Marchi took over the portfolio last November, the acceptance rate has increased dramatically. Last year, Canada accepted 25,000 refugees, including 13,600 who landed in Canada. This year, the figure is expected to be 28,000 refugees, including 15,000 landing here. The difference is most striking in the percentage of accepted applications: that figure rose from 46 per cent last year to 67 per cent in the first four months of this year. Some board members suggest that new figures to be completed later this month will reflect an even higher rate. In the two Toronto offices where the heaviest traffic takes place, members estimate the acceptance rate at about 80 per cent.

That is an issue because critics say that as the screening mechanism for refugees loosens, the number of illegal or controversial claimants grows. Already this year, there have been a series of controversies involving the IRB’s sister body, the Immigration Appeal Board, which determines whether rejected claimants should be jailed while they await further appeals. In several cases this year, the appeal board has released people previously convicted of violent crimes who then went on to commit new offences. Now, there are concerns that the IRB, through looser rules and misguided kind intentions, is unwittingly encouraging abuses. In a Federal Court ruling on a refugee case last week, Judge Francis Muldoon issued a scathing criticism of Marchi’s decision to appeal a refugee application that the IRB had rejected. Marchi, he said, should respect the IRB’s decision because “the minister, a partisan, is not the one with the recognized expertise.” Muldoon also said the immigration department appears to have an “impossibly kind-hearted but softheaded view of who would be a refugee.” In another case last week, an IRB appeals board allowed a family of immigrants in southern British Columbia who collected more than $106,000 in unemployment benefits over the past five years to sponsor five more relatives to join them. The board also approved immigration to Canada of a woman whose husband illegally collected unemployment insurance while he was in India. Hiere are also concerns that human rights offenders, or their relatives, are being allowed in as refugees. One such example is the wife of Somali warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, who has settled in Ontario while he remains in Somalia.

One key reason for the increased acceptance rate appears to be the fact that Marchi, after coming to office, replaced previous appointees to the board—many of whom had ties with the former Progressive Conservative government—with new members, many with long histories of involvement with refugee, human rights and ethnic groups. ‘There is no pretence of neutrality on the board any more,” says Art Hanger, immigration critic for the Reform party. “All

FOCUS ON IMMIGRATION

of these people start out with an established pro-acceptance bias.” One example he cites is Schelew, a former president of the Canadian branch of the human rights organization Amnesty International. Marchi appointed Schelew to the IRB last year. Other appointees in the same period include several former immigration lawyers, a former vice-president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a former refugee co-ordinator with Amnesty International and a former executive director of the Canadian Ethnocultural Council. Marchi defends his choices: “We put some people in the board who know something about refugees. We can’t just be putting car mechanics there. If people know this field, I also hope they know when a refugee is not a refugee.” But that, critics say, is not the way things have worked. The effect, says Bauer, is that the IRB has been transformed from an independent arbitration panel into a place where “it is made clear to IRB members that a low acceptance rate will weigh heavily against reappointment. The entire process is numbers-driven.” Schelew denies that assertion.

Even without such appointments, the system is heavily weighted to give refugee applicants repeated opportunities to make their case successfully. Individual cases are heard in front of panels made up of two members. Approval of an application requires the consent of only one member, while a refusal must be agreed upon by both members. If the judgment is in favor of the applicant, the members do not have to give reasons for that decision. In a refusal, the members, who often have no legal training, must write a judgment designed to withstand a legal appeal to the Federal Court. The applicant, represented by an im| migration lawyer paid for 3 by legal aid, can apply for 2 leave to appeal to the court, i If that is refused, the reject5 ed applicant’s case is auto| matically considered for ap5 peal within the department

which decides whether the person should be accepted on the grounds that his or her deportation would result in “significant personal risk.” At any time, the minister can also step in to allow an application on “compassionate or humanitarian grounds.” One result of all that says Bauer, is that it “becomes much, much easier to go along and say Ves’ ” at the start The problem, says Bauer, is that under the present system, “it is almost impossible to check whether a claimant is lying, because of the constraints imposed.” Earlier this year, refugee hearing officers—the immigration department employees who collect information on applicants—were given new orders severely restricting the methods they could use. They were told, among other things, to collect information only from public sources, such as libraries. They could not call police departments in other countries to see if applicants had criminal records. They were forbidden from checking applicants’ documents for authenticity, or from ensuring consistency by checking their statements against what they said upon arrival. After a series of complaints, some of those restrictions have been loosened.

‘The only real goal is to accept as many applications as possible’

Another problem is that the IRB, because of a heavy backlog, often “expedites” or “fast-tracks” certain claims. A hearing officer meets with an applicant and his or her lawyer for about 20 minutes to assess the reasons for the claim. If the applicant convinces the officer that he or she is from one of a select list that includes certain religious, political or ethnic groups, the applicant may be accepted without even having to attend a formal hearing.

That list, prepared by the IRB, features groups from 27 countries. In several instances, it recommends fast-tracking applications from members of groups who are sworn enemies of each other. It also includes sympathizers of the groups causing persecution. For Peru, for example, the department describes members of the police and army and the Shining Path rebel group as “agents of persecution”; it then goes on to list, under the category of “persons at risk,” both “persons suspected by the authorities of helping the Shining Path” and “persons suspected by the Shining Path of helping the authorities.” Similarly, in Sri Lanka, the department says that members of Tamil militant

groups are “agents of persecution,” but recommends acceptance of all “young Tamil males aged 10 to 40 or 45 years old.” People listed as being at risk are intended, says the board, to qualify for the expedited process. In other words, says Bauer, fyou are easing the acceptance process for precisely the groups of people who need the most investigation.”

There is, Marchi conceded, “room for reform on the IRB side.” He and his critics appear to agree on the need to avoid tarring the image of legitimate refugees with controversy over illegal claimants. “When I came into this job, the feeling of saying ‘welcome’ to someone I knew to be a true refugee seeking new hope here was the best feeling in the world,” said Bauer. “A big reason for me to get out was that, because of all the other stuff, I was losing that emotion and starting to suffer from compassion fatigue.” No one on either side of the debate wants that to become contagious.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMUH in Ottawa