Refugee groups have taken issue with assertions made by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney in an open letter to Xtra about a story on proposed government changes to regulations concerning refugee settlement in Canada.
In his letter of Feb 4 Kenney cites the huge backlog that led to “unacceptable wait times,” noting that a handful of sponsorship groups have flooded the system beyond its capacity to process requests.
What Kenney left out is a reference to the auditor general’s March 2009 report on the backlog, which says the problem stems in large part from the refusal of the Conservative government to fill vacancies on the Immigration and Refugee Board during its first three years in office.
Kenney states that the system has been open to abuse, and sponsorships made by groups of five people (the G5 category) are used to sponsor relatives who aren’t in need of refugee protections.
“This is something that the government has been constantly accusing private sponsors generally of doing, and our response has always been that just because you have a family member in Canada doesn’t mean that you’re not a refugee,” says Janet Dench of the Canadian Council of Refugees.
She says that if a Canadian has a family member in a refugee situation, private sponsorship is the only route to take.
“There’s no point doing it if you don’t meet the refugee definition or are nowhere near the refugee definition because you won’t be accepted,” Dench says. “If he is saying that there are people putting in their private sponsorship applications who in no way meet the refugee definition, then maybe it’s a question of education that is needed.
“I don’t see how you could call that abuse, because it wouldn’t do you any good whatsoever,” she says.
Chris Morrissey, of the Rainbow Refugee Committee, says she is astounded that abuse is cited for changing the G5 process.
“Ultimately, every application for sponsorship must be approved by a visa office at a Canadian embassy or consulate,” she says. “I imagine that these applications are screened out. As far as I know there are no stats available indicating how widespread the practice is.”
Kenney’s office did not respond to several of Xtra’s requests for documentation or case numbers of cases in which such abuse has occurred.
In his letter to Xtra, Kenney also took issue with concerns raised about visa officers possibly discriminating against queer applicants.
“This is insulting to the professionalism and impartiality of Canada’s highly trained visa officers, not to mention the quality assurance and oversight that ensures decisions are reasonable and conform to Canadian law, which does not discriminate between applicants on the basis of sexual orientation,” Kenney wrote.
Nevertheless, Morrissey says that concerns exist, whether the homophobia is real or perceived.
“While Citizenship and Immigration has the ability to ensure that visa officers are trained and understand the realities of and the way to approach the process, CIC has no ability to ensure that UNHCR officials have such training,” Morrissey says. “In fact, individuals have shared with us how some of them have been put in danger by a UNHCR official. It is recognized by workers on the ground that they have not been adequately trained.”
Dench is also concerned about the overall message Kenney sends in his response by declaring that any suggestions the changes will affect refugees are untrue.
“His department has just published a notice for a proposed change in which they invite comments,” Dench says. “Surely you invite comments because you want to know what the impacts will be. It’s a little bit of a concern for a group like ours who put in comments because we thought it would hurt some refugees – not intentionally, but that would be the impact. For him to say that it’s untrue begs the question, Why are you asking for people’s opinion if you know what the answer is?”