Overhaul overdue

  • December 12, 2012

The United Nations reports there are 10.5 million refugees in the world. These are homeless, often stateless, mostly impoverished people displaced for many reasons, but frequently due to war and persecution.

Obviously, Canada can’t help them all but it should offer safe haven for as many as possible. That means remodelling an asylum system that, although founded with best intentions, currently chugs along at a depressingly diminished capacity.

To that end, the government has implemented Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act. The reform has been widely criticized and, indeed, has flaws. But it’s difficult to imagine perfect legislation on an issue so soaked in human tragedy and emotion. If this bill can bring speedier rescue to more people then it is a step in the right direction.

The reforms were needed to discourage abuse of the system and to efficiently weed out bogus claims so that more time and manpower can go to legitimate refugees. In 2011, Canada processed 34,257 asylum claims and rejected 47 per cent of them. That includes nixing all 304 claims from the United States and 98 per cent of claims from Brazil, Portugal and the Czech Republic. The refugee board wastes too much time on people who cry “refugee” to avoid the lines at immigration.

Under the reforms, several countries with historically high rates of rejected claims will be flagged. Asylum applications from these “safe” countries still will be permitted but assessed promptly. If rejected, an applicant will have limited appeal rights and be deported quickly. Also, these applicants will be ineligible to work or receive health coverage, including emergency care.

Those terms — particularly the speedy processing and health-care exclusion — are harsh and bound to create hardship for some legitimate claimants. But the old system of ponderously processing thousands of illegitimate claims has led to a huge backlog of pending claims in Canada, which can divert resources from refugees who are barely surviving in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. They are in desperate need of Canadian generosity.

The old system had become virtually closed to many refugees. The reforms should open more doors and open them sooner. That’s good.

But the new system requires legitimate asylum seekers, even from acknowledged hot spots, to face a hearing within just 60 days of arrival. That will put an unreasonable burden on many bona fide refugees who fled without documents and who require legal and other help just to prepare their case. The government should create safeguards to ensure Canadian standards of compassion and fairness always trump the tests of bureaucracy.

Canada’s asylum system was overdue for an overhaul. These reforms, though imperfect, are a reasonable first step to opening Canada’s doors more quickly to those in genuine need.

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