Kenney Urges Provinces to Review ‘Generous’ Welfare for Refugees

Jill Mahoney, Globe and Mail (Toronto), April 1, 2010

Federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney wants provinces to review their welfare programs to address the possibility they are creating incentives for dubious refugee claims linked to criminal networks.

Mr. Kenney, who unveiled proposed streamlined rules for asylum seekers earlier this week, said countries complain that Canada’s generous social support measures encourage abuse of the refugee system.

“When I meet with foreign governments, they say, ‘You’re to blame.’ They say, ‘You’ve got a pull factor in Canada.’ Now one of the pull factors that they’ve identified–this is something I’ve just raised with some of the provincial governments–is the generosity of our social welfare schemes,” Mr. Kenney told The Globe and Mail’s editorial board Wednesday.

Although Mr. Kenney was careful to say he would not “dictate” to provincial counterparts, his position nevertheless sets the stage for confrontation with the provinces, especially Ontario and Quebec.

“I wouldn’t say that our welfare system encourages fraudulent refugee claims,” Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario’s Minister of Community and Social Services, said in an interview. “I don’t think it’s generous anywhere in the country. It’s a program of last resort.”

Mr. Kenney did not elaborate on what changes he would like the provinces to make, noting social assistance falls within provincial jurisdiction. He also did not have an estimate of the scale of the problem, but cited a police investigation into allegations of human trafficking involving Hungarian asylum claimants in Hamilton, Ont.

“We would encourage the provinces to be prudent about what incentives they may be creating,” he said.

Asylum seekers are eligible for welfare, emergency health coverage and schooling for their children while awaiting determination of their claims, which currently takes about 4.5 years if they exhaust all avenues of appeal. They can also receive work permits. Sixty-three per cent of prospective refugees make claims in Ontario, while another 29 per cent do so in Quebec.

Mr. Kenney said migrants who make refugee claims but later voluntarily withdraw their cases–people he said are “de facto here illegally”–can keep their welfare benefits in most provinces, including Ontario. While Ms. Meilleur initially said she believed that was accurate, a provincial official later disputed the comment, saying asylum seekers are no longer eligible for social assistance once claims have been abandoned.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said most asylum seekers struggle to make ends meet on welfare. In Ontario, a single person gets up to $585 a month in social assistance.

“Surviving as a refugee claimant is extremely difficult and you’re not going to do it if you think you’ve got alternatives,” she said.

In referring to the current backlogged refugee determinations process, Mr. Kenney cited a raft of statistics in suggesting some asylum seekers are “gaming a system which almost encourages that kind of abuse.” Fifty-eight per cent of refugee claims are ultimately rejected, withdrawn or abandoned and the system has been inundated in recent years with claims from people from a few democratic countries that generally adhere to international human rights treaties, including Hungary and Costa Rica.

“Illegal immigration flows are based on incentives, they’re based on information,” Mr. Kenney said. “When you suddenly get a huge spike of manifestly false asylum claims coming from a democratic country, it’s not just happening by accident. To state the obvious, there’s some kind of, at least, message on the street that this is a good place to go to for certain reasons. And I imagine that income support may be one of those reasons and I think it’s something that all governments should look at to address.”

Last year, 2,500 Hungarians made refugee claims, Mr. Kenney said, with approximately 95 per cent later withdrawing their cases. In mentioning the investigation into human trafficking allegations in Hamilton, he said the asylum seekers were coached to make false refugee claims and welfare applications, money that was diverted to the criminal network.

The Conservative government’s reforms would divide prospective refugees into two streams–those from so-called safe countries and those from elsewhere. Claimants from the safe countries, a designation triggered after large influxes of unfounded claims, would receive hearings but be ineligible for one of two appeals processes.

As well, failed refugee claimants who agree to leave Canada would be eligible for one-way plane tickets home as well as up to $2,000 for help getting re-established in their countries of origin.

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