Bill C-11, the refugee reform bill, reached the Senate committee on social affairs this morning for what will amount to a full day of hearings. Immigration minister Jason Kenney appeared by videoconference for the first hour (apparently he was off in Ireland for the commemoration of the Air India bombing there), and he spoke of Canada’s long history of taking in asylum seekers, beginning with escaped slaves from America.
Kenney outlined the bill as amended in the Commons, and one item that I noted in particular was that there will be a built-in flexibility for claimants who normally would have their hearing in 90 days, could see those timelines extended if they are deemed to have been traumatised enough that such a hearing would be an impossibility. He also pointed out that the new legislation includes new resources for government-sponsored refugees, but also noted that of the 2500 new spaces the law creates, only 500 will be for government-sponsored refugees, the rest reliant on private sponsorships.
One of committee chair Art Eggleton’s preoccupations was the possibility of unintended consequences with the amendments to the bill, but none of the morning’s witnesses could see any in particular. Liberal Senator Mobina Jaffer asked mostly after provisions being made for vulnerable women, but also touched on those refugees who faced discrimination for sexual orientation.
In response to a question from Senator Judith Seidman, Kenney said that he didn’t have the sole power to designate countries of origin – rather, it would be an interdepartmental panel that would base the list on numerical quantitative thresholds, and from there conduct a qualitative review of the countries’ internal mechanisms for individual protection before making such a designation.
The Executive Director of the IRB, Simon Coakeley, spoke about the ten competencies that IRB members are currently assessed upon, and that they would likely be used for the new hires for the new Refugee Appeals Division, and in some cases the new interview officers for arriving immigrants. The initial “triage” interview will replace the personal information form that claimants are currently required to complete, and Coakeley stated that it was likely to be a two-way process, so that they could also impart necessary information to the claimants to help them with their upcoming hearing. As well, they planned to engage with stakeholders to determine the kinds of questions that needed to be asked in that process.
Finally, the Senior Protection Officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Hy Shelow, appeared to say that the UNHCR was generally pleased with the bill as amended, but he did still sound concern about timelines that would be too rigid or inflexible, as those could hamper fair determination for refugees – especially in light of shortages for representation of interpreter services. He stated that of 100 cases that his offices monitored, as many as a third did not have adequate representation or translation, a statistic that did send alarm through the room.