Bill Curry, Globe and Mail (Toronto), November 2, 2009
The number of refugees gaining asylum in Canada has dropped dramatically under the Conservatives as new figures reveal the impact of the government’s efforts to transform this country’s immigration system.
New statistics released by the government show the number of successful claims by refugees living in Canada fell to less than half of what it was when the Conservatives came to office.
The final immigration numbers for 2008–as well as future projections–come as Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is promising to refocus Canada’s refugee system on what the government calls “real victims” rather than migrants seeking to abuse the process.
During the summer, the government imposed visa restrictions on Czechs and Mexicans as part of a broader attempt to block bogus refugee claims filed from within Canada. A spokesman for Mr. Kenney noted Monday that Mexico was the top source of asylum claims in 2008, yet the Immigration and Refugee Board rejected those claims at a rate of 90 per cent.
Spokesman Alykhan Velshi said the department expects that in 2010, Canada will resettle 3,900 refugees from Iraq, 2,900 Karen refugees from Burma and 2,500 Bhutanese refugees.
Critics say the numbers show a lack of compassion and a potential disregard of the government’s obligations under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to provide people with a fair hearing before deciding whether to deport them. They say lower targets will mean thousands of refugee claimants living in Canada will face further delays in hearings, and more will be deported to a very uncertain future.
“If we deport the wrong person because we denied their claims, some of them suffer torture, beatings, occasional death . . . drastic consequences,” NDP MP Olivia Chow said. She pointed to a report last month that a 24-year-old woman who was murdered in Mexico had made two failed refugee claims in Canada.
Citizenship and Immigration’s annual report, released on Friday afternoon, revealed that the number of refugees approved after applying in Canada dropped by 56 per cent from 2005 to 2008.
The report also shows the projected number of refugees who will be accepted from within Canada–known as “inland protected persons”–will remain near the lower 2008 levels both this year and next.
The lower numbers reflect the fallout of a refugee determination system that slowed to a crawl in the first two years after the Conservative defeat of the Paul Martin Liberal government in 2006.
The Conservatives vowed to overhaul the Immigration and Refugee Board–the panel that rules on refugee claims–saying it had become a haven for Liberal political appointees.
But in the move to a new system, many board positions were vacant for months, swelling the case backlog and limiting the number of hearings. There is now an 18-month delay between a refugee claim in Canada and an IRB hearing.
According to the minister’s spokesman, the time it took to change the IRB appointments process is the main reason for the drop in the 2008 numbers. But now that almost all of the board positions have been filled, he said, the numbers will climb again in the short term.
However, Mr. Velshi said the report’s projections do not take into account the minister’s plans for a new system that will weed out “bogus” claims made in Canada more quickly while still respecting the Charter.
“Clearly our system is being abused,” Mr. Velshi said. “[The minister] plans to reform our asylum system to give a faster decision to real asylum claimants.”
Janet Dench, the executive director of the Montreal-based Canadian Council for Refugees, said the report’s numbers show a clear change in Canada’s approach to refugees.
“Canada is becoming dramatically less welcoming toward refugees,” said Ms. Dench, who takes issue with the government’s assertions that it is showing an openness to refugee applications from abroad. “It’s a very bleak, bleak picture for refugees and for Canadians that care about refugees.”