The Difference between “Safe” and “Unsafe” Countries of Origin
In his recent visit to Calgary, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon praised Canada for being generous and compassionate toward Syrian refugees. Ban also called on nations in the world to follow the Canadian example. Despite these plaudits, the Canadian refugee system is far from perfect.
One reform from the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act that is still controversial is that different procedures apply to refugee claimants depending on their nationality. The Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada can designate countries based on their human rights record, and claimants from those countries suffer from a suite of procedural disadvantages. They were initially unable to appeal a negative decision, but the Federal Court found that provision was unconstitutional because it discriminated on the basis of national origin. Even now though, those same refugee claimants do not have as much time to prepare for their refugee hearings, they have to wait 180 days before they are eligible for a work permit, they can be removed from Canada while they apply for judicial review from the Federal Court, and they have to wait three times longer before they can apply for a pre-removal risk assessment.
One of the problems with this process is that the determination of which states respect human rights is not always that transparent or straightforward. There are also no statutory criteria for de-designating a country when conditions change. Hungary is one of the designated countries, for instance, and over 40% of claims from that country in the recent past were successful.
Another problem is that countries which are generally safe for most people may not be safe for particular minority groups, but there is no mechanism by which to exempt certain profiles from the procedural disadvantages of their country’s designation.
As well, the decision of which country is to be considered safe is made by the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and not a panel of experts. Such centralized decision-making makes the process potentially vulnerable to politicization, although the Trudeau government is generally more compassionate toward refugees.
At the time this bill was introduced, the government said that the rationale was to reduce abuse in the refugee system. Indeed, it was believed that by processing these applications faster, they would also reduce the workload by removing the “unfounded claims.”
Yet, the 65-year-old Refugee Convention makes no such distinction. According to the refugee convention, a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” Behind every refugee there is a story. Behind every refugee there are circumstances that force somebody to flee their home country. Refugee law offices work tirelessly to assist applicants throughout the process and record each story in its context.
As UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said in Calgary, Canada’s response to the Syrian crisis in relation to refugees is remarkable. Canada’s domestic policies, however, do not always satisfy its international obligations. The designation of countries narrows the meaning of who is an acceptable refugee and who is not based primarily on a distinction that the Federal Court has already said is discriminatory.
Other reforms in the refugee system are yet to be fully seen and tested. At this point, refugee law offices are doing all they can to help refugees with their applications and assist them throughout the process.