The government has placed a new bill, Bill C-31, before parliament that will fundamentally change Canada’s refugee system. One of the most important changes is to the refugee claim process itself. Refugee claims will be decided much more quickly. In the opinion of most refugee experts, the process will be too fast; it will not give refugee claimants a fair chance to tell their story.
For more than twenty years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has praised Canada’s refugee system as a model for other countries. In the Canadian system, every eligible refugee claimant is given a hearing before an independent member of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). Most claimants have a legal representative to assist them and they have enough time to gather and present the evidence needed to prove that they are refugees. There are problems with the system: some of the Board members are not reliable decision-makers and there is no appeal, but the overall system gives most claimants a fair chance to tell their story.
The new system will be very different. After they make their claim at a port-of-entry, refugee claimants will have only 15 days to find a lawyer who can take their case and prepare a written statement explaining why they are a refugee. That is simply not enough time for someone who has just arrived in Canada, does not speak English or French, does not have a place to live, and knows nothing about Canada. Most immigrant Canadians can understand how confusing the arrival experience can be. If refugees do not deliver their written statement within 15 days, their claim will be abandoned and they will be removed from Canada. The result will be that many claimants will have to deliver written statements that are incomplete or inaccurate because they could not find an available lawyer or the lawyer did not have enough time to fully understand and prepare the claim.
Refugee hearings will be scheduled 30 or 60 days later, depending on the claim category. For many claimants, that will not be enough time to find the evidence and witnesses they need to prove their claim, especially if they need psychological or medical reports. Some claimants will not have a right to appeal a refusal by the IRB and could be deported from Canada 46 days after making their claim. Claimants who can appeal will have only about 21 days to make their appeal, not enough time to fully prepare an effective appeal.
Canada’s current refugee system is too slow and must be improved. But the government is going from too slow to much too fast. It is very difficult for most refugees to prove their claims. They are frightened, they do not understand the law and they do not know how to tell their stories without legal help. Under this new law, more refugee claimants will be forced to prove their claims without lawyers. Even with a lawyer, there will not be enough time to prove their claim. There will be more mistaken decisions by the IRB and more refugees will be sent back to persecution.
Peter Showler, Director, the Refugee Forum, University of Ottawa