Andrea Dawes works with refugees and other individuals in precarious immigration situations at Just Solutions, a legal information clinic of the Montreal City Mission.
The first sunny glimmers of spring were in the air, but March 31st 2010 was a dark day for Canada’s refugee determination system and for the people whose lives depend on it. Jason Kenney, Canada’s immigration minister, tabled what the government has labeled the “Balanced Refugee Reform Act” in the House of Commons. Unfortunately for the thousands of refugee claimants who arrive in Canada each year, Minister Kenney’s proposals to completely overhaul the refugee determination system tip the balance scales far away from our country’s traditional reputation as a safe haven for individuals fleeing persecution.
As I write, the proposed bill is barreling its way through the parliamentary committee stage of approval. Numerous refugee rights organizations, as well as many opposition MPs, have voiced their concerns to the committee. Unfortunately, many Canadian citizens, whose voices are crucial to such an opposition process, haven’t had the opportunity to meaningfully engage in the current debate. Many of us, busy with our daily lives, are ripe prey for damaging media sound bites and rarely hear the real, compelling and complex stories of refugees in our midst. Minister Kenney’s press team often employs damaging terminology (for example, “bogus” vs. “real” refugees), rejoicing in the “improvements” this bill would make to the refugee system while ignoring the real potential impact of these changes on people’s lives.
The proposed bill does include some positive changes, long fought for by the refugee advocacy community. For example, a reduced waiting period for refugee determination hearings and the introduction of a Refugee Appeal Division. However, the reach of these changes is extremely restrictive, with little allowance for the diversity of human experience that individuals fleeing persecution bring with them on their journey.
Imagine the following scenarios. Under the proposed bill, a gang-rape victim suffering from post-traumatic stress is forced to share the complete details of her unspeakable experience with a complete stranger within 8 days of her arrival in a strange land; is obliged, within 60 days, to gather the required proof from a war-torn country and give a complete testimony in front of the federal civil servant who would then be the sole decision-maker of her claim (the first instance decision-maker would no longer be an independent member of the Immigrant and Refugee Board). A victim of persecution from a country on the newly proposed “safe country” list would, on the sole basis of his or her citizenship, be denied a real right to appeal a negative decision. (Specific criteria for the determination of so-called “safe countries” has not yet been determined; how can a “safe country” be distinguished in a world constantly plagued by violence and corruption?) If the proposed legislation is accepted, these are some of the lives that would hang in the balance.
Canada is the only nation to have received, in 1986, the prestigious Nansen Refugee Award, given annually by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for outstanding service to the cause of refugees. I am proud of this distinction, received by the then-Governor General on behalf of “the people of Canada”. I am extremely proud of the Canadian refugee advocacy community’s constant efforts to safeguard every individual’s basic human right to asylum. And, as a Canadian citizen, I am ashamed of the worrying direction our current government is taking with regards to our international obligation to protect this right.
Please take a moment to visit the very informative website of the Canadian Council for Refugees for an informed and “human” analysis of the proposed bill: http://ccrweb.ca. To stay up-to-date about refugee rights issues and join the ranks of AiDDA, the Association of Individuals for the Defense of the Right to Asylum, please follow the following link: http://www.montrealcitymission.org/en/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=79&Itemid=97. As non-citizens, present and future refugees cannot lend their political voices to the fight. If you share their and my concerns, please join us in bringing them to the forefront of the debate.