OTTAWA – Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says he is open to creating a refugee appeal board, a long-standing demand of the NDP and Bloc Quebecois.
But Kenney says such an appeal body would only be acceptable under a streamlined refugee intake process – and whether that would include the current Immigration and Refugee Board is a key question worrying advocates.
Kenney says he wants to work with the opposition to come up with a new model.
“I’m hopeful that reasonable people from across the political spectrum can actually settle on a consensus, on a model of refugee reform that completely respects our charter obligations and our international obligations to protect persecuted persons, while reducing dramatically the abuse of our system,” Kenney said in an interview.
“Frankly, a lot of this is common sense, and part of the common sense would include access to a meaningful appeal in the context of a … streamlined system.”
An appeal board was actually written into the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act by a previous Liberal government. But it has never been brought to life for fear it would simply add another layer of bureaucracy to an already sluggish system.
Refugees may currently appeal decisions at every step of the refugee-claim process at the Federal Court, sometimes taking several years to resolve their cases.
The NDP argues that creating an appeal board would automatically cut the number of cases the Federal Court would agree to hear.
“Having an appeal based on law and fact would make the decisions a lot more coherent and consistent,” said NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow.
“Right now there’s only board members that decide on the fate of an applicants.”
Kenney has said he has looked at the refugee system in the United Kingdom for inspiration for retooling Canada’s.
In Britain, bureaucrats review refugee claims instead of members of a quasi-judicial body like the IRB.
While the U.K. system is quicker than Canada’s and lets in fewer refugees, a quarter of the decisions are overturned later by an appeal body.
The UN Refugee Agency last year criticized the U.K.’s fast-tracking system, which channels the most dubious applicants into detention centres to wait for their appeals. The agency said civil servants were not spending enough time evaluating the cases, and some torture and rape victims were winding up in detention centres.
“There’s a general problem of basing your system on the premise that its primary goal is to reject people as fast as possible,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“You get a system where there’s a widespread cultural disbelief, where people who approach refugee claimants, including the decision makers, start off with a negative perception, and that’s a system that’s not going to deliver justice to refugees.”
Kenney points to the sharp increase in asylum claims in Canada – 30 per cent last year and expected to rise. He believes Canada has gained a reputation a place as an easy place to get in, or at least to park oneself for years on end as the process unfolds.
The government introduced visas for Mexicans and Czechs earlier this month, the two main source countries for claims. But Kenney says visas are a “blunt instrument” for dealing with systemic problems.
“It’s now taking us sometimes years to see a false asylum claim through to its completion,” says Kenney. “That’s not acceptable. It’s creating huge backlogs and waiting times that’s unfair to real victims of persecution.”
There again, advocates take issue with Kenney’s views of where they system is deficient.
Every year that the Conservatives have been in power, the department has directly linked the backlog to the failure to make appointments to the IRB.
When the Liberals were voted out of office in 2006, the inventory was 23,000. Last year, it had ballooned to 65,000 outstanding claims.
But former IRB chairperson Peter Showler says the government continually ignores other serious problems in the system.
He points to the dead space between when a claimant’s leave to appeal is rejected by the Federal Court, and when they receive notice that they are removal-ready.
Showler estimates that simple bureaucratic delay can take up to two years, followed by a lengthy pre-removal risk assessment.
“When they endlessly talk about the problems in the front-end of the system, and why we should not have a refugee appeal board,” said Showler, director of the University of Ottawa’s Refugee Forum.
“What they don’t tell you is the infernal amount of time they’re wasting at the back end.”
Dench says the last stage, removing false claimants from the country, is also unbelievably slow.
“We’ve often asked the question of the government, if you’re worried about this particular group that seems to be misusing the refugee system … why are they not priorities for removal? No answer.”
Kenney said he would be seeking in the input of stakeholders in Canada’s refugee system in drafting changes. Dench and Showler said they had yet to be contacted.