Canada’s refugee system has undergone “a sea change” since the arrival of the new Liberal government, says a prominent refugee rights advocate.
Mitchell Goldberg, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, says numbers speak for themselves as the government works to fulfil its promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February.
“In four years since Syria’s civil war began, the previous government allowed only 3,000, in four years!” Goldberg said. “It’s a sea change, a dramatic shift between before the (Oct 19, 2015) elections and after the elections with regards to refugees selected overseas.”
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The Canadian refugee system consists of two main parts.
Under the Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program, Canadian officials tour refugee camps in various parts of the world and receive referrals from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to select people for resettlement in Canada. Under Canadian federal laws, all refugees selected for resettlement have to undergo careful screening to ensure that there are no issues related to security, criminality or health.
On the other hand, the In-Canada Asylum Program is for people making refugee protection claims after reaching Canada on their own. Asylum seekers who make their refugee claim in Canada must undergo a rigorous hearing and prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution or are at risk of torture, or cruel or unusual punishment in their home countries.
In December 2012, the previous Conservative government of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper introduced laws that had significantly tightened and trimmed the refugee claimant system, making it a much more challenging process.
According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, a non-profit refugee advocacy group, Canada only accepted 22,220 new refugees in 2014 (representing less than 1% of the total number of new refugees worldwide).
Undoing Conservative changes
The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has introduced some positive changes for refugees who arrive in Canada on their own and claim asylum on Canadian territory, Goldberg said.
“One is that, the Conservative government had introduced a law that would deny an appeal to refugees from countries that they decided were safe,” Goldberg said. “This was taken to court, the Federal Court judge ruled that it was unconstitutional, that it was discriminatory, that you cannot discriminate on the basis of country of origin and the Conservative government appealed it.”
The Liberal government announced just before the Christmas holidays that they withdrawing their appeal, Goldberg said.
This means that the Federal Court judgement remains valid and there can be no discrimination on the basis of country of origin, that people from those countries have the same right to appeal at the Refugee Appeals Division as everybody else.
“That is making life and death difference to many people who are applying for refugee status,” Goldberg said.
The Liberals have also withdrawn the appeal – again launched by the previous Harper government – of another landmark case after the Federal Court overturned drastic cuts to healthcare for refugee claimants and privately sponsored refugees introduced by the Conservatives, Goldberg said.
Tally of Liberal promises
In his mandate letter to Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship John McCallum Prime Minister Trudeau outlined twelve priorities that set out a markedly different policy from their Conservative predecessors.
Radio Canada International requested a point by point status report from IRCC on the progress on these 12 priorities since the Liberal government was officially sworn in on Nov. 4, 2015.
The number one priority was the resettlement of 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of February 2016.
As of Jan 14, federal officials had already resettled 10,790 Syrians to Canada, bringing in most of them on government-chartered flights from Jordan and Lebanon.
Most of the refugees so far have come under the privately sponsored refugee program, which allows individual Canadians or community groups to sponsor refugees. However, officials with the department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) say the proportion government-assisted refugees (GAR) among Syrians arriving in Canada will continue to grow.
“After February, Syrian refugees will continue to be accepted, and the government will reach its commitment to resettle a total of 25,000 GARs,” said a statement from IRCC.
The second priority was to double the number of entry applications by immigrants applying to sponsor their parents and grandparents from 5,000 to 10,000 applications.
“Between January 4, 2016 when the program reopened and January 7 when the intake closed, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) had received more that 14,000 new parent and grandparent applications, and we are now reviewing the applications,” said a statement from IRCC. “The first 5,000 complete applications received will be placed in the inventory queue. As stated in the notice of closure, Canada is committed to reuniting families and the Government of Canada is seeking to increase the intake of parent and grandparent sponsorship applications from 5,000 to 10,000 per year. More information on this increase will be forthcoming, including information on when we will be returning applications not added to the inventory.”
Another priority set out in the mandate letter was to develop a plan to reduce application processing times for sponsorship, citizenship and other visas.
“The department continues to explore new measures that could help speed up application processing, including looking at greater network automation,” said a statement from IRCC. “Further details on the measures will be announced over the coming months.”
McCallum was also mandated to fully restore the Interim Federal Health Program that provides limited and temporary health benefits to refugees and refugee claimants.
“In December Minister McCallum confirmed the Government’s intention to fully restore the Interim Federal Health Program,” said a statement from IRCC. “The department is currently working towards that goal.”
McCallum also had to establish an expert human rights panel to help you determine designated countries of origin, and provide a right to appeal refugee decisions for citizens from these countries.
“IRCC is currently exploring options with regards to an expert panel,” said a statement from IRCC. “Failed claimants from designated countries of origin, now have access to an appeal before the Refugee Appeal Division.”
Officials with IRCC also had modify the temporary foreign workers program to eliminate the $1,000 Labour Market Impact Assessment fee to hire caregivers and work with provinces and territories to develop a system of regulated companies to hire caregivers on behalf of families.
“Eliminating the $1,000 fee for applications for Labour Market Impact Assessments for families seeking caregivers to care for family members with physical or mental disabilities is a priority for the Government,” said a statement from IRCC.”The Government of Canada is exploring options to implement this commitment.”
“Ensuring that families can turn to a trusted service to find qualified caregivers remains a priority for the Government. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada will be engaging with provinces and territories to determine how such a regulated system might be structured.”
The minister also had to lead efforts to facilitate the temporary entry of low risk travelers, including business visitors, and lift the visa requirement for Mexico.
“Canada is working on this initiative,” said a statement from IRCC. “We will be engaging Mexico in discussions on the way forward, with a view to ensuring that the benefits of a visa lift are fully maximized by both of our countries. It would be premature to comment on next steps at this time.”
McCallum was also mandated to work with the minister of justice and the minister of public safety and emergency preparedness to repeal provisions in the Citizenship Act that give the government the right to strip citizenship from dual nationals.
“The department is working to support the Minister based on the directions outlined in his mandate letter,” said a statement from IRCC. “The Government of Canada has stopped processing any further revocation cases under the dual citizenship measures. More information will be provided at a later date.”
IRCC also was mandated to eliminate regulations that remove the credit given to international students for half of the time that they spend in Canada and regulations that require new citizens to sign a declaration that they intend to reside in Canada.
“The department is working to support the Minister based on the directions outlined in his mandate letter,” said a statement from IRCC.
Other commitments made by the Liberal government, including restoring the maximum age of dependents from 19 to 22 and changing the conditional permanent residence requirement, require regulatory amendments, IRCC officials said.