OTTAWA - The federal government is pushing ahead with plans to shake up Canada's refugee system this week, aiming to quickly weed out posers and more efficiently accept people fleeing dangerous situations.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is expected to table controversial legislation, promised in the throne speech, as early as Tuesday.
Speaking on CTV's Question Period on Sunday, Kenney said the system is rife with abuse that is making wait times for legitimate refugees as long as a year and a half. He said last year the No. 1 source of asylum claims came not from a totalitarian state, but from a European democracy. He did not name the country.
Kenney said the vast majority of people who land in Canada by air claim asylum only because it is convenient and subsequently withdraw their claim, many later signing up for provincial welfare.
"This is telling me that Canada ... has become a destination of choice for false refugee claimants and it is simply burdening the system," Kenney said, calculating that each claim can cost taxpayers up to $50,000, with appeals taking up to four-and-half years to arrive at a conclusion.
"I don't want to keep out of Canada those who really do need our protection. But for those who are abusing the system, they're giving a bad name to our asylum system, they're clogging up the system."
The minister added that later in the spring he intends to bring forward legislation to "crack down on bogus, unscrupulous (immigration) consultants and advisers who counsel people" to make false applications.
According to sources, this week's proposal would divide refugees into two categories - those from safe countries of origin, and those from more dangerous locations, who would be fast-tracked. The minister would decide which countries fall into the safe category.
The bill would also establish a new appeals process, so that claimants who are initially rejected can seek a second chance, and even introduce new evidence. Currently, appeals from an initial ruling usually end up in court, and appellants can't introduce new evidence.
The proposed reforms would also see bureaucrats replace the Immigration and Refugee Board as the body making the initial determination on claimants, with measures that ensure independence from political interference. The government-appointed board will not be dismantled, but its role would change considerably and become "depoliticized," sources say.
The bill will also include additional funding to help settle newcomers from United Nations-recognized overseas refugee camps.
Funding for the bill has been a major stumbling block, say sources. The proposals have been held up in cabinet for months, as ministers balked at the expected half-billion dollar price tag of setting up new structures, helping settle newcomers and getting rid of the existing backlog.
Dissatisfaction with the country's refugee system has been building for years. Meanwhile, the backlog has reached 63,000 cases, which could take two-and-a-half years to process.
However, some question whether radical reforms are needed, accusing the government of compounding the problem by not filling vacancies at the refugee board quickly.
"There doesn't need to be a backlog," said Gloria Nafziger, refugee co-ordinator for Amnesty International in Toronto. "They created the crisis by not empowering the Immigration and Refugee Board with the resources to do the job."
Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman agreed that a few tweaks and additional resources could give the current system the efficiencies the minister is seeking.
Still, the government believes there is a political consensus that the backlog is unacceptable, and unfair to the thousands of legitimate refugees who are kept in legal limbo for sometimes years.
In polling done last summer for the department, researchers found that many Canadians were uncomfortable with the long determination process.
"It bothered people that it takes so much time to adjudicate," notes from Decima Research say. "First, because claimants might be waiting a long time to receive such a crucial ruling, and second because it costs taxpayers a lot of money to support these people over the course of time that their case is being heard."
The polling work did not, however, find widespread outrage about bogus refugee claims.
Opposition parties are believed ready to support the reforms if they can be persuaded that the new proposals are even-handed and will speed up the process.
The most controversial aspect of the reforms will likely be the two-track system based on claimants' country of origin. Experts warn that selecting "safe" countries can be a slippery concept, and could lead to Canada inadvertently rejecting female claimants that are victims of domestic violence, or that are persecuted based on sexual orientation.
But Kenney said there would be no restrictions "on any grounds, including sexual orientation."