New Omnibus Bill Could Prevent Refugee Claimants from Being Heard
April 4 is Refugee Rights Day in Canada. As important a day as this is, it seems to have been overlooked by the federal government, given new provisions to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act quietly tabled as part of a 392-page omnibus budget bill on April 8.
The provision introduces a new ground of ineligibility for refugee claimants. If an asylum seeker has an open or previously opened claim for refugee protection in certain countries (such as the United States), they would not be allowed to make a claim in Canada.
Claims by people who’ve previously made unsuccessful claims, been deemed inadmissible due to a criminal record, or granted protection elsewhere would also be ineligible.
In short, many asylum seekers would be denied access to Canada without getting the chance to tell their story, let alone defend their claim.
This presents a serious moral, ethical, and legal problem for the federal government: Canada has an obligation under the Refugee Convention and Convention Against Torture to treat all refugee claimants equally and to hear them out.
In fact, Refugee Rights Day, April 4, specifically recognizes a 1985 Supreme Court of Canada decision (known as the Singh decision) that every claimant has a right to be heard in an oral hearing.
To recap: the federal government of Canada tabled a Bill that included provisions to prevent refugee claimants from making their case right after the anniversary of a landmark decision in refugee rights.
Border Security Minister Bill Blair commented that this new measure seeks to prevent “asylum-shopping” and added that this was part of the government’s ongoing efforts to “reduce the number of people who are crossing our borders irregularly.”
Given long-standing concerns over the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., it’s hard not to interpret this new provision as a stop-gap measure to help stop irregular asylum claims. The Safe Third Country Agreement stipulates that refugees making claims at official border crossings from the U.S. are turned away, as the U.S. is considered a safe country.
But irregular, unofficial points of entry are exempt from this agreement—in turn, this has contributed to the image of an asylum crisis at the 49th parallel, with numerous refugees using this loophole to make a claim in Canada.
Many people have been calling for an end to the STCA, or an expansion of it, to help close these loopholes. This new provision, quietly slipped into the budget omnibus bill, could provide a means of closing those loopholes—assuming it isn’t a case for a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms case with the Supreme Court.
Canada’s refugee and immigration system is one of the most bureaucratic in the world, as we’ve discussed in the past. Even with these loopholes, there is no guarantee someone will actually receive refugee protections. It’s remarkable that, instead of directly addressing problems, the federal government has seen fit to include this change to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act as part of a larger budget Bill, and more remarkable that they didn’t consider the optics of this choice or the significance of this date.
As refugee law experts Jamie Liew and Shauna Labman wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Battleford News-Optimist, “Canada is celebrating a milestone – the 40th anniversary of Canada’s private sponsorship regime that has resettled 327,000 refugees.”
“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,” write Liew and Labman.
“But this isn’t the same as a full hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board.”
Liew and Labman also state that not everyone will get PRRA; some people only get one if they ask for it, and acceptance rates are extremely low. Only 3 per cent of PRRA application in 2018 were accepted.
No matter what the law may be, people will always come to Canada’s borders. We have established a reputation as a welcoming nation of diverse peoples, ready to lend a hand and help others through difficulties and challenges.
The federal government’s stance on immigration and refugees reached viral status in the days and months following the 2015 election. This stance has become cannon fodder for critics, but the government has stayed firm in this commitment—at least until this Bill was tabled.
Canada’s immigration and refugee system works. While there will always be more work to be done, it’s not the broken, ramshackle system critics often claim it to be. If the government is going to outwardly make a show of accepting immigrants and refugees, then it had best put its money where its mouth is and give all refugees due process.
It’s shameful that, on such a distinguished and proud anniversary, the Canadian government has quietly tabled a bill that will impact so many people simply looking for a safe haven.