'A refugee is a refugee': Asylum changes threaten Canada's 'gold standard' system

Embedded in the federal government's recently tabled omnibus budget bill are troubling changes to our inland refugee determination system, say Jamie Liew and Shauna Labman.

Change will make refugee claimants who have made a claim in another country ineligible to make one in Canada

Asylum seekers cross into Canada from the United States by walking down a train track into Emerson, Man., on Feb. 26, 2017. A proposed change in the federal government's recent omnibus budget bill would mean refugee claimants who have previously made a claim for protection in another country will be ineligible to make a claim in Canada. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Canada is celebrating a milestone — the 40th anniversary of Canada's private refugee sponsorship regime, which has resettled 327,000 refugees.

Canadians most recently helped resettle thousands of Syrian refugees. Indeed, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has welcomed refugees at our airports and the government promoted Syrian resettlement with the hashtag #refugeeswelcome.

This celebration is in stark contrast to the Trudeau government's omnibus budget bill tabled April 8. Embedded in the 392-page document are troubling changes to our inland refugee determination system.

Significantly, a new ground of ineligibility for protection is added to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act — refugee claimants who have previously made a claim for refugee protection in another country will be ineligible to make a claim in Canada. 

What does this mean?

It means many refugee claimants will be denied access to Canada without having an opportunity to tell their story and without having their claim heard by Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board. Some people may never be heard.  

Canada has an obligation under the Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture to not only treat all refugee claimants equally but to hear them out. Our highest court, the Supreme Court of Canada, held in the 1985 Singh decision that every refugee claimant has the right to be heard in an oral hearing.

We celebrated this decision on its April 4 anniversary, now marked as Refugee Rights Day in Canada. Less than a week later, this government introduced a budget bill that tries to strip away that right.

Risk assessments not the same as hearings

The government says we should be comforted by the fact that claimants will have access to a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment (PRRA), which examines whether someone would be returned to a situation of torture or other risk.

But this is not the same as a full hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board. The risk assessment applications are paper-based and an immigration officer conducts an interview only if the officer deems it necessary. 

And not all claimants will be told about the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment. Some people approaching our official ports of entry only get a risk assessment when they ask for it. And even if they do know about it and get one, the acceptance rate is extremely low: 97 per cent of all PRRA applications in 2018 were rejected.

We need to manage the border and the influx of migrants crossing it. But we shouldn't do that by slamming the door shut and violating people's charter and international rights.

The government wants to turn back people who enter from "safe" countries like the United States. But the U.S. refugee determination system is very different from Canada's. 

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a decision foreclosing people from making refugee claims based on domestic violence or gender-related persecution, for example. This denies protection to many people who might seek it in Canada. 

Children were separated from parents and put into detention in the U.S. People are being prosecuted for entering the U.S. outside of official ports of entry and are being detained while they wait for their refugee claims to be assessed.

Why do we want to delegate our refugee determinations to a country that is not respecting basic human rights of refugee claimants?

Canada's commitment to refugees

I think all Canadians can agree that we need to manage the border and the influx of migrants crossing it. But we shouldn't do that by slamming the door shut and violating people's charter and international rights, hoping that this will deter people. 

People are going to come to our borders no matter what the law says. Managing the border in an efficient and humanitarian way means allowing people to come to official ports of entry to be processed. We have a well-oiled system. Why turn our backs on it now? 

Our refugee determination system through the Immigration and Refugee Board is considered the gold standard all over the world. Let's use it.   

We cannot allow the Canadian government to use joyful images of "deserving" refugees arriving at airports and 40th anniversary celebrations to imply that only resettled refugees are legitimate. 

Doing good deeds through the resettlement program should not provide us with moral comfort in slackening our commitment to refugees coming across our borders. We should not focus on the route by which refugees come to us or how they ask us for protection.

A refugee is a refugee. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Jamie Liew is a refugee lawyer and an associate law professor at the University of Ottawa. Shauna Labman is an assistant law professor at the University of Manitoba.


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