Senate committee pushes Liberals to delay asylum seeker clampdown
Proposal would bar individuals from making refugee claims if they've made one in 'safe country' like U.S.
A Senate committee is urging the government to delay implementation of a controversial change to Canada's asylum laws for one year in order to limit harm to the most vulnerable refugees.
That postponement is one of several recommendations by the social affairs, science and technology committee, which studied a proposed amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act tucked into the government's budget implementation bill. The change would bar an individual from making a refugee claim in Canada if they've already made one in a "safe" country, including the U.S.
Border Security Minister Bill Blair said the measure aims to prevent "asylum-shopping" and act as a deterrent for people considering entering Canada outside of an official border crossing. Other countries considered safe by the federal government are the other so-called 'Five Eyes' nations with which Canada shares security intelligence: the U.K., New Zealand and Australia.
The Senate committee says a one-year delay in introducing the change would help ensure the immigration and refugee system is prepared and resourced, and that border officers have the right training.
The committee also is pushing for a review after one year to study the impact of the legal shift on refugees. The committee questioned why such a "substantive" piece of legislation was buried in a budget bill, and warned that introducing the new standard for declaring someone ineligible for refugee protection could negatively affect those fleeing violence and persecution.
Lobat Sadrehashemi, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, called the Senate committee's recommendations a "step in the right direction" and agrees the proposed change should not have been stuffed into a budget bill.
"These changes risk causing serious harm to some of the most vulnerable refugee claimants, including women fleeing domestic violence and other gender-based harm, LGBT claimants, children, survivors of torture and others," she said.
The federal government has insisted the U.S. is legally a safe country because it meets all of Canada's requirements for the designation. It points to the fact the U.S. subscribes to international conventions on refugees and torture and has a clean human rights record.
Is U.S. safe for migrants?
But immigration experts have warned the U.S. is no longer safe for asylum seekers due to policy shifts by the administration of President Donald Trump.
The committee welcomed a recent amendment proposed by the Commons finance committee, which would allow for a mandatory hearing at the pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA). But it noted that witnesses have warned that such a hearing would not equate to an independent refugee determination process and would not likely be as thorough and effective as an Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) hearing.
After the budget bill was tabled, Blair said the change is part of the government's efforts to "significantly reduce" the number of people crossing into Canada outside of regular crossing points. More than 40,000 people have entered Canada outside of official border points in the last two years — most of them at Roxham Road in Quebec.
Roxham Road surge
"There's a right way to come to the country to seek asylum and/or to seek to immigrate to this country, and we're trying to encourage people to use the appropriate channels and to disincentivize people from doing it improperly," Blair said at the time.
Blair's spokeswoman Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux said the government is willing to provide the committee with an update on how the measures are working within two years, but is not considering any delay of implementation "at this time."
She said that this year's budget, which earmarked nearly $1.2 billion to deal with asylum seekers, will "help better manage, discourage and prevent irregular migration and improve the efficiency of the Canadian asylum system, without compromising its fairness and compassion."
"No person will be turned away if they are deemed to be at risk and nobody will be removed without an opportunity to be heard," Cadieux said.
The Senate committee also called for an automatic stay on the removal of refugee claimants who seek judicial review by the Federal Court.