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Kenney's critics defend refugee rights

by Hilary Beaumont

Members of No One Is Illegal defend refugee rights with a banner hung from an overpass. Photo by Hilary Beaumont
Members of No One Is Illegal defend refugee rights with a banner hung from an overpass. Photo by Hilary Beaumont
Jason Kenney speaks at the National Citizenship and Immigration Law Conference.
Jason Kenney speaks at the National Citizenship and Immigration Law Conference.

On Friday Jason Kenney, Canada’s minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism, spoke at Halifax’s Marriot Hotel as part of the National Citizenship and Immigration Law Conference. Kenney gave a speech on “balanced refugee reform” in which he argued for a streamlined immigration system to fast track a 60,000-claim backlog of refugee applications. His proposed process would establish a list of “safe countries”, mimicking systems found in the United Kingdom, France and Greece.After his speech, Kenney said a panel of public servants would choose “safe countries” based on “objective criteria” such as the number of claims from each country; if a country had a large number of claims and the majority of those claims are found to be untrue, the panel would look at the country’s human rights record before declaring the country “safe”.“Sometimes every now and then we have a large number of refugee claims from democratic countries that protect human rights, almost all of which claims are rejected from our system, and we need to be able to send a message to the people who organize those waves of false asylum claims that they’re not going to be able to stay in Canada for a long period of time,” Kenney said.At 7:30 on Friday morning, demonstrators from the Halifax arm of No One Is Illegal dropped a banner off the side of an overpass near the hotel that read: “Status for refugees! Stop Bill-C11”.The Canadian group’s criticisms of Kenney’s proposed reforms are many, mainly focusing on the “unfair” two-tier system that would deny some applicants access to an appeal based on nationality. They are not alone – the Canadian Council for Refugees and other human rights organizations have raised similar concerns.“Any country could be deemed safe and claimants from those countries would be treated differently,” No One Is Illegal said in a release. “Poor women, queer and trans survivors of violence have little means of entering Canada outside the refugee system.” Under Kenney’s proposed system, civil servants rather than independent judges will interview refugees and have the power to deny them access. The Canadian Council for Refugees has pointed out that countries currently using civil servants frequently deny refugee claims that are later overturned on appeal. But that appeal process would not be accessible for people from “safe countries”. The minister said his system would solve the refugee claim backlog, but No One Is Illegal said the Conservatives created the backlog, which was non-existent in 2005 when the party took power. During his speech, Kenney said the number of claims fluctuates over time and has increased considerably over the last three years.Though Kenney recently promised to expand quotas under the Government-Assisted Refugee Program and Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program by a total of 2,500 places, No One Is Illegal said he is lying, pointing to spin surrounding refugee quotas: “In December 2009, Kenney cut refugee quotas from 29,000 to 12,000,” their release reads. “That’s a cut of 17,000. Even with a 2,500 person increase, that still means a 14,500 person cut.”A brief scrum followed Kenney’s speech with a total of just three reporters in attendance. When asked if putting a quota on asylum approvals means inevitably denying applicants who are “bona fide”, Kenney said, “Any system you construct is gonna have to make decisions, like the legal system. Is it possible that sometimes the courts let a guilty criminal go innocent or convict an innocent person, even in the fairest judicial system in the world? Yes it’s possible, but the objective is to reduce that possibility as much as possible, to reduce human error, to have a very fair system – a system that complies with the charter of rights, a system that complies with the UN conventions on torture and refugees, and we’re absolutely certain the reforms we’re proposing do just that.” The Geneva Convention on Refugees states that a refugee should not be deported to his or her country of origin if there is a well-founded fear of persecution, torture or death upon return.In February, Eritrean refugee Habtom Kibraeb hung himself from a tree in Clayton Park. The former captain of his country’s military sought asylum in Canada, but his claim was denied because our country considers the Eritrean military to be a violator of human rights. Kibraeb left the military and spoke against its ideology. He said he feared torture and death upon return to his country – a fear confirmed by his suicide, not by Canada.“We have a very fair legal system to address claims, and every single claimant says they will face perhaps torture on return to their country of origin and the system looks at the facts, they look at the credibility of the claimant, and in some cases the system says that’s not true,” Kenney said Friday when asked how his proposed reforms would decrease suicide rates among asylum applicants. “What we offer people in Canada is a fair legal system, we don’t offer them guaranteed protection because we have to make an assessment on each claim on an individual basis.”Under the proposed system, a refugee would be assessed based on nationality first and individual asylum claim second.When he initially proposed changes to the immigration system, the minister cited an investigative report by the Toronto Star that found corrupt consultants outside of regulatory boards were abusing the system. When asked what he would do to increase pressure on those consultants, Kenney said, “In a couple of weeks I will be coming to parliament with a bill that will broaden the regulation of immigration consultants. … We do intend to crack down on unscrupulous consultants and those who would exploit would-be immigrants to Canada and provide people with bad advice, advice to commit fraud in our system.” 

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