A brief summary of Bill C-31 and why it matters to Canadians
June 26, 2012 Leave a comment
Bill C-31 is the omnibus refugee bill that will most likely be read in the House this week. The bill has been seriously criticized by Amnesty International (PDF file), UNICEF Canada, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Canadian Bar Association (PDF file), and numerous other groups for its complete disregard of basic human rights. Various events across the country discussed the serious impacts Bill C-31 will have on newcomers to Canada, such as members of the LGBTQ community.
Among other things, the bill will create two categories of refugee claimants – the category of individuals who arrive from countries the Immigration Minister deems safe, such as countries with which Canada has signed a free trade agreement, i.e. Mexico, Colombia, member states of the European Union, etc, and the category of individuals who may arrive from unsafe, conflict regions. For example, someone filing a claim from a country deemed unsafe will have their case reviewed within 75 days, whereas someone coming from a country the Minister of Immigration deems safe would only have 30 days. Expedited claims processing is not necessarily a good thing in this case because it does not give claimants enough time to find a lawyer, gather evidence, and prepare their case.
Then there is the question of creating safe and unsafe country lists. From that, one wonders: Is Mexico considered a safe country? The House Subcommittee on International Human Rights does not consider Mexico a safe country. Yet, the federal government would claim that individuals coming from Mexico would be coming from a safe country. Regardless of whether these individuals belong to sexual minorities, to families and individuals threatened by armed gangs, to journalists who place their lives at risk by reporting on murdered and missing women or human trafficking, they will be considered “designated foreign nationals”, individuals who will be further punished for escaping persecution through 12-month detention, which the bill will enact, costing Canadians up to $90,000 per person, per year.
According to the new bill, a refugee claimant who is labeled a “designated foreign national” [essentially, someone from a country deemed safe by the Minister of Immigration] will be placed in automatic detention of up to 12 months. An earlier version of the bill allowed refugee claimants no opportunity to be heard during the 12-month detention. A revised version of the bill now includes a two-week and six-month reviews, so that there is at least a semblance of giving claimants an opportunity to state their case for seeking refuge in Canada.
The new bill will also call for the detention of children under 16 years of age. According to Minister Kenney, children will have the choice of going to foster care or living in detention with their parents. Doesn’t sound like much of a choice to me. UNICEF has called on the federal government to seek alternatives to detention because of Bill C-31′s flagrant violation of Articles 3 and 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which call on signatory states to always keep the best interests of the child in mind when designing policy.
Similarly, there have been numerous instances of the Minister of Immigration stating that EU refugee claimants are bogus refugees and that in most instances, they abandoned their claims, which according to him means that their cases had no substance. He fails to mention the fact that as soon as those claims were filed (most were from Roma refugee claimants seeking protection from persecution in Romania and Hungary), the Minister was out in the media hinting that those claims had no hope of ever being accepted in this country – when he repeatedly stated that the EU is a group of countries respecting human rights law, he also stated that there should be no reason for someone from Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, or Poland to file a refugee claim in Canada. There are two issues with this statement: Firstly, the assumption that someone from the EU cannot claim refugee protection in Canada – as a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of Refugees, Canada has an obligation to accept all refugee claims, regardless of where their origins may be. Secondly, EU citizens cannot file a refugee claim in the EU, so alternatively, a Roma refugee claimant would have to file their claim in Canada or outside of the European Union. A couple of years ago, France forcibly returned members of the Roma community that had fled Romania and Bulgaria, even though they were at risk of persecution in those countries. You may wonder how, in a European Union of open doors, a state could deport the citizens of another state – any form of protection, political, social or economic, in EU states, is contingent on individuals being employed. As such, a Roma member of community from Romania would not be eligible for state protection unless they were employed. In a European Union that continues to discriminate significantly against the Roma community, it is understandable that someone would resort to distancing themselves as far as possible from Europe and seeking some hope in Canada by filing a claim here.
Something that has not been mentioned much in discussions about Bill C-31 is how flagrantly it violates the right to refugee family reunification. Under the bill, claimants found to be refugees under the UN Refugee Convention will be ineligible for permanent residence in Canada, which means they would be unable to sponsor any family members to the country (in order to sponsor family to Canada, an individual must be a permanent resident or Canadian citizen).
The bill will also significantly shift the way in which refugee claim applications are received by replacing an appointed Immigration and Refugee Board with a Board comprised of public servants, who will necessarily have to follow the direction they’d receive from Ottawa and reflect that in their decision-making.
So, why has this bill not reached the headlines? Maybe because it’s 81 pages long. It’s a bill that was introduced in February, and just recently, last week in fact, made it to the Senate. Two days of senate hearings are already over, so the stage is now set for the bill to pass on June 29th.
To sum up, if Bill C-31 passes in a few days, among many other changes, refugee claimants and Canadians can expect the following:
- 12 month-detention of refugee claimants, including children, coming from designated countries of origin;
- No right to appeal a negative decision – if a judicial review of a negative decision does take place, it could be done after an individual has been deported from Canada. This also means that if a wrong decision is made by the Immigration and Refugee Board, someone could be deported back to torture or face other forms of persecution, even death, before the error is noted;
- Restriction from return to Canada – Once an individual is deported out of the country, they would be ineligible to apply to return to Canada for a specific amount of time;
- Ineligibility for permanent residence for five years – this means a refugee claimant to Canada would be eligible for citizenship nine years (!!!) after first setting foot in the country;
- Ineligibility for family reunification for five years – Due to ineligibility for permanent residence, refugee claimants found to be UN Convention refugees will consequently be ineligible to bring their families to Canada;
- Significant social costs – trauma in detention for children under 16 years old, trauma for adults, an alienation from the Canadian public, criminalization of the idea of refugee claims in Canadian society
- Significant financial costs – up to $90,000 per detainee per year, construction of new and expansion of old detention centres, significant costs for expedited processing times.
There is still time left for you to let your Member of Parliament know about your concerns regarding the bill. This bill will not just change the way refugee claimants are treated in Canada, it will also erode Canada’s tradition of opening doors to those who are most vulnerable. It remains to be seen whether the federal government will listen to the criticism from many groups across Canada, or whether it will simply move forward with the legislation, paving the way for countless court challenges.
The Interim Federal Health Program cut to health care provision for newly arrived refugees is not part of this bill, although that change will radically and negatively affect the way in which refugees integrate in this country. Doctors in Canada have been vocal. More Canadians need to do the same, to express their views on the possibility of this discriminatory, unacceptable, un-Canadian bill becoming a law.