Bloc and NDP MPs are accusing the Liberals of stalling a bill that would create a refugee appeal process — a much-needed step to ensure queer refugee claimants are treated fairly, says NDP MP Olivia Chow.
Bloc Québécois MP Thierry St-Cyr’s Bill C-291, which would implement the Refugee Appeals Division, passed second reading in the Commons with the support of all three opposition parties. But when the bill made it to the Citizenship and Immigration committee, it suddenly lost steam.
“We wanted to debate the Refugees Appeals Division, so that there’s fairness given to refugees that are being rejected,” says the NDP’s immigration critic and committee member Olivia Chow. “Especially if the decision is just made by one board member who could be homophobic or could have personal biases since they’re political appointees. This one person could determine the life and death, or [whether] the person would be tortured or face oppression if they return to their home country.”
Earlier this year, the Tories appointed evangelical Christian Doug Cryer to the Immigration and Refugee Board. In a 2006 posting on CanadianChristianity.com, Cryer is quoted as saying that homosexuality is “sinful.”
Some raised concerns that Cryer’s beliefs would influence his decisions, but even before his appointment, the IRB had a history of returning queer refugee claimants to countries where homosexuality is illegal and punishable with prison or torture. In March 2008, Kulenthiran Amirthalingam was deported to Malaysia, despite being jailed and beaten in 2002 because of his sexuality.
While the Liberals supported Bill C-291 during second reading, Chow finds their tune has changed in the committee.
“The Liberals are collaborating with the Conservatives to block a clause-by-clause decision, so that it’s now stuck in the committee, and it will not see the light of day before the summer,” says Chow. “It could come back in September, even though there’s only one clause and it would take no more than two minutes to say ‘All those in favour.’ We already spent a whole morning studying it.”
The bill’s author, St-Cyr, echoes Chow’s comments.
“There’s some sort of hypocrisy in that,” St-Cyr says of the Liberals. “They probably say they support the bill, but in reality, they’re doing all they can to block it.”
The Refugee Appeals Division was first put into the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in 2002, but was never implemented. Bill C-291’s sole clause would force its implementation.
St-Cyr notes that in 2002, the number of commissioners listening to each case was cut from two to one.
“The deal is somehow broken — you can’t reduce the number of commissioners without having the appeal division,” he says.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees (CCR), says the 2002 decision showed “a completely astonishing disrespect” for the democratic process and refugees’ rights. The CCR has been pushing for an appeals division since the current refugee system was put into place in 1989.
“Refugees’ lives depend upon an appeal,” Dench says. “If there’s no effective way to correct the mistakes that are made in the refugee determination system, it means refugees face being sent back to a risk of persecution, torture or even death.”
Currently, the only appeal process is for an application for judicial review with the Federal Court, most of which are denied. Even then, the Federal Court appeal process can only be used to argue on technical errors, not merits of the case, says Dench.
“The appeal [division] would be an appeal on the merits, which means that it asks the question was the wrong decision made, and if the wrong decision was made, then it will be overturned,” says Dench. “Whereas the Federal Court can say ‘we may not agree with the decision, but the board is entitled to make its own decision, even if we don’t agree with it.'”
For their part, the Liberals deny holding up the bill in committee, calling such reports “very inaccurate.”
“The position of the party is that we support a refugee appeals division,” says Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua. “What we also support, but what I feel is more fundamental, is a review of the refugee system in its entirety because it needs to be modernized. We’re also very much aware of the challenges that the refugee determination system has here in Canada — the backlog, the lack of resources, the time it takes, for example, for an individual to know if they’ll be accepted in to Canada or not, so we will favour the overhaul of the refugee system.”
Bevilacqua says that after studying the Auditor General’s report on the immigration system that simply “tweaking” the system as it stands will not work.
“The status quo is simply not an option — it’s not working and it needs to be fixed,” says Bevilacqua. “You need to restructure the system in a way that will become effective, efficient and of course fair to the individuals involved.”
Bevilacqua says that after discussions with the immigration minister and the government that such overhauls could begin to take place by early fall.