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Debate on refugee reform bill begins

'Safe countries of origin' policy ignores gay reality

Even before debate began on Bill C-11, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the NDP asked that the bill be sent to committee for study and amendment. The government did not agree to the request, and debate began in earnest.

“In our system, if you refer to a committee before Second Reading debate begins, the committee has much more leeway in terms of amending it, changing it and improving it,” says gay NDP MP Bill Siksay, who took the lead on the debate in the Commons Monday morning.

In the Commons, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney dismissed Siksay’s suggestions, stating that it’s normal procedure to debate the principles of a bill in Second Reading. “We are open to reasonable debate and amendments at committee,” Kenney told the Commons.

The refugee reform bill is already drawing some controversy, partly for its designation of certain countries as “safe countries of origin,” meaning that claimants who come from those countries will be dealt with in an expedited manner — and denied the ability to access the Refugee Appeals Division, the creation of which is also part of the reforms.

In the Commons Monday, all three opposition parties noted that gays and lesbians being persecuted in otherwise democratic countries would be particularly vulnerable to the “safe countries of origin” provisions, because of their inability to access the proposed Refugee Appeals Division.

Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua supported the decision to send the bill directly to Second Reading, so long as the goal remains coming out with the best possible policy.

Nevertheless, Bevilacqua outlined four major concerns that he has with the bill as it stands — the “safe country of origin” policy, the quality of the bureaucrats performing triage assessments, the timelines with respect to an assessment within eight days of a refugee claimant arriving in Canada and their first hearing within 60 days, and the ban on pre-removal risk assessments for one year for claimants.

Both the Liberals and NDP had concerns with the timelines for refugee claimants.

“[Newcomers] won’t have had the time to locate assistance and support here in Canada in that period, and they certainly won’t have had the time to find legal support — whether it’s even available is another question,” says Siksay. “That timeline is really problematic for people who’ve faced persecution, particularly around sexual assault, and particularly around their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

As for the requirement that claimants have their first hearing within 60 days, Bevilacqua proposed that be extended to 120. Kenney pointed out that the bill’s proposed timelines are longer than in other countries with similar laws, and that Canada does not detain asylum-seekers, as happens in some countries.

Kenney maintains that while he’s willing to be flexible on some points, the underlying principles of his proposals must remain intact.

“The government is disposed to having a serious dialogue on this at committee to consider and to accept reasonable amendments as long as they meet the objective of a system that is both fast and fair,” Kenney told the Commons. “I think the broad consensus is that we need to get to that.”

Bevilacqua charges that there are principles that cannot be violated, but is nevertheless buoyed by the tone of the debate to date.

“You have to have a system that is quicker, faster, but always maintaining the principles of due process and fairness and justice, and I think that the tone of the debate today spoke to that,” Bevilacqua says.