A contentious refugee reform bill has passed the committee stage, after being heavily amended. One of the biggest hurdles — a “safe” country of origin provision that would deny people from those countries access to new appeal mechanisms — was all but written out of the final version of the bill.
“We chucked the word ‘safe,’” says NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow. “It’s ‘designated’ countries, but people from those countries have the same rights as people who are not from those countries.”
Claimants from these designated countries would be given a faster process, but still have access to the new Refugee Appeals Division (RAD), would get humanitarian and compassionate consideration, and access to the Federal Court.
Chow says that she’s happy with the final result.
“It’s good. It took a lot of work, but it happened.”
Liberal MP Denis Coderre, who sits on the immigration committee, had reservations about retaining the designated countries label, but after consultation with groups like the Canadian Council of Refugees, decided to let it pass.
“Nothing is perfect,” Coderre says. “I think that overall the bill itself, since everybody put some water in their wine, and I had some contact with the stakeholders, we agreed amongst ourselves that we would let it pass.”
In a press conference on Thursday morning, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney specifically credited the Bloc and NDP critics for their contributions, which Coderre rejected.
“I know that I heard the minister today try to attack and play politics, but at the end of the day, we’ve all done our [due] diligence work,” said Coderre.
Chow also credits the Liberals for balking at the original draft.
“Had that not happened, safe countries would have occurred, and there wouldn’t have been a right of appeal, there wouldn’t have been any humanitarian and compassionate consideration — it would have been a very disastrous bill.”
The Canadian Council of Refugees says the worst aspects of the bill were turfed, but they’re still not pleased overall.
“We continue to be concerned about the interview that refugees are forced to go through,” says executive director Janet Dench. “It’s now been specified that it will have to be at the earliest 15 days, so that’s an improvement over the first version, and there is written into the law a right to counsel, but the interview to us is highly problematic, particularly for people who won’t be ready to talk in front of an official in terms of the real grounds of their claim, and that includes people who are claiming on the basis of sexual orientation and people who are not in a position really to talk about it openly.”
Dench says that experience has shown that it often takes a long time for queer claimants to explain the real basis of their claim. As well, the draft regulations submitted by the minister would see the hearing take place within 90 days for most claimants, and 60 days for those from “designated” countries.
“If you’re forced into a hearing after 60 days, that can be problematic, particularly for people who don’t have time to develop the confidence to testify, but also to collect information,” Dench says.
For example, a queer claimant may be coming from a country where there isn’t a lot of documentation on the situation queers face, which requires more research on the claimant’s part. As well, in order to establish the validity of their claim, they may require affidavits from their home country. Those people would require reassurance that they wouldn’t put themselves in danger, and those documents would likely require translation.
But while all parties cooperated to see the amendments happen, both Chow and Dench credit the efforts of queer groups for pressuring MPs to stop the bill in its original form.
“A few weeks ago, it seemed like the bill was going to go through with minimal amendments,” Dench says. “What we saw in the last week-and-a-half was that the advocacy efforts of people across Canada really were heard in quite an extraordinary way, leading to dramatic changes in the bill, and I think it’s important to highlight the very energetic and successful advocacy efforts of various lesbian and gay rights groups."
“Egale and the Rainbow Refugee Committee — they did amazing work in terms of lobbying and writing,” Chow says. “Obviously it had an impact. That’s where the credit is due.”