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Queer calls unheeded as refugee bill dies

Process still hinges on single adjudicator & is open to homophobia

With a tie-breaking vote cast by the speaker, Bill C-291 died on third reading in the House of Commons Dec 11. The bill would have seen the creation of a long-overdue Refugees Appeal Division, leaving refugees no internal mechanism to fight bad decisions.

The bill would have helped solve a longstanding gripe among queer activists. Since refugee verdicts are rendered by a single person, critics say it leaves the door open to homophobia. Queers who claim their home country is anti-gay have been told by adjudicators to hide their identity, move to a major city, or act more like their biological sex to avoid persecution.

When the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was passed in 2001, it included a clause that would see the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) create a Refugee Appeals Division to hear cases that the IRB rejected. It was itself a compromise reached after the decision to move from two-person panels to a single IRB member hearing each case. Those clauses were never enacted, and the appeals division was never created.

“I was very upset by the result of the vote,” says Bloc Quebecois MP Thierry St-Cyr. “Not that I cannot accept to lose a vote — that’s part of democracy. It was more the behaviour of the Liberals that deliberately managed to [defeat] the bill while officially voting in favour. That is shameful, really.”

The Conservatives voted against the bill. Because some MPs were absent, the vote was closer than it might otherwise have been. In addition, two Liberal MPs abstained on the vote — Joe Volpe and Judy Sgro, both former immigration ministers.

“I think it’s quite hypocritical from the Liberals, because if they didn’t want the bill, they should have voted against [it] instead of those kinds of manoeuvres,” St-Cyr says.

Chris Morrissey of the Rainbow Refugees Committee says she was “devastated by the outcome of the vote.”

“The fact that the deciding vote was cast by the speaker of the house for the ‘status quo’ is totally unconscionable,” Morrissey says.

“For us it’s disappointing, because there’s no accounting for homophobia. So the fact that there is no appeal mechanism really does leave people at the whim of a decision maker who may not be very sympathetic to them,” says El-Farouk Khaki, a refugee and immigration lawyer who sits on the Egale Canada board as well as Egale’s legal affairs committee.

Khaki ran as an NDP candidate for Toronto Centre in the last two federal elections.

“You need to have oversight and accountability that’s accessible to people, and right now, it’s not accessible because the only option you have if you receive a negative refugee decision is to go to the Federal Court for a judicial review,” Khaki adds. “A judicial review is much narrower in scope than an appeal. It basically leaves out a lot of people — it leaves them out to dry.”

Other refugee groups have also expressed their own outrage at the bill’s defeat.

“We are shocked and appalled and saddened that we get a further confirmation that the lives of refugees count for very little for too many Parliamentarians,” says Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees.

Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua reiterates his support for the implementation of the RAD, as a part of a broad reform of the immigration and refugee system.

“I’ve been encouraging government members, including the minister, to present their package and given my input as well as to what it should be like,” Bevilacqua says.

“He has since consulted with me, and I have let him know what I feel about certain issues, and one of the key issues that would be a deal-breaker for me would be the absence of a fair and just appeals procedure.”

Bevilacqua adds that Volpe and Sgro abstained for the sake of consistency with the positions they took as minister.

The immigration minister, Jason Kenney, promised to table a bill to reform the immigration and refugee system by Christmas, but with the House now risen until the end of January, that deadline will pass. Kenney had previously indicated a willingness to include an appeals division as part of that package.

Meanwhile, having only a single IRB member decide refugee cases remains a problem.

“If a claimant’s sexual orientation or gender identity is called into question, as has recently happened to a gay man here in Vancouver, there is no real second chance,” says Morrissey. “Canada has been rebuked by the UN for its lack of an appeal division.”