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Refugee Process in Canada

It is a myth that Canada hosts a disproportionate number of the world’s refugees. There are about 20 million refugees worldwide. Most migrate just beyond the border into neighboring countries of Africa, Middle East, and South Asia. According to statistics by the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, in 2005, Pakistan hosted over 1 million refugees, while Canada hosted under 40,000. This is less than one percent (0.2%) of total population. Racialized trends are revealed through the statistics on government-assisted refugees: in 1998, 59% of government-assisted refugees came from Europe versus only 12% from Africa.

Furthermore, the acceptance rate of refugees in Canada has been steadily declining since the 1980’s, with a current national average of approximately 40%. However this percentage figure is incomplete without mention of the massively restrictive Safe Third Country Agreement, which came into effect December 29, 2004. This Agreement between the US and Canada, with minor exceptions, does not even allow asylum seekers to make a claim at the land border if they have traveled through the US, a common port of entry for most migrants. Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s own statistics show a 40% drop in the number of refugee protection claims since the Agreement came into effect. Put simply, we cannot simply tout a “higher than average acceptance rate” when the border is essentially locked down to asylum-seekers.

A refugee claimant’s fate lies in the hands of a single person. Since 28 June 2002, only one Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) member makes decisions on refugee claims.

Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) members are political appointees. Members are appointed to the IRB through a political process that takes account of candidates’ political connections and are not mandated to have any experience in the law or particular knowledge of the regional situations from which people have fled. One judge, for example, delivered a judgment to a Palestinian refugee declaring that documentary evidence does not reveal systemic persecution of the Palestinian people.

The refugee system is a lottery system. Refugee Acceptance rates vary from 0%-80% amongst different judges. Andrew Rozdilsky, for example, rejected all 73 cases he heard from 2001-2003. Jose Andres Sotto, accepted six of 258 asylum seekers (2.3%) from January of 2001 to June of 2002. Vancouver region has a lower acceptance rate than Toronto: 43% versus 58%. (Globe and Mail, July 24, 2004) The decision making at the Refugee Protection Division is so arbitrary, that the policy is not to tell claimants who their board member is ahead of time, so that they will not switch members based on the member’s decision record

Often refugee claimants are given very little notice of their hearing, only six to eight weeks. They have only 28 days to find a lawyer and prepare the initial document (the personal information form or PIF) which is then considered sworn testimony and the very basis of their claim (if the claimant contradicts even slightly or adds to the story in their PIF, they can lose the claim for not being credible) and if the PIF is not submitted in this time frame, their claim is declared abandoned and usually cannot be reopened.

The new policy of “Reverse Order Questioning” means that in a refugee hearing the testimony of the claimant begins with cross-examination by the refugee protection officer or the board member where there is no RPO. Essentially this has the effect of refugees feeling vulnerable and guilty until proven innocent. In a recent decision, the federal court stated that it has many concerns regarding this policy, however the Refugee Protection Division has decided not to change its policy significantly.

In 2004, Immigration Minister Judy Sgro tried to reassure Canadians that there is no need for churches to provide sanctuary. “We currently have between six and 20 avenues of appeal” for failed refugee claimants” she said. This is wrong. A failed refugee claimant in Canada has three options: the Federal Court, an application for a humanitarian exception, or a risk assessment. None of them is an appeal.

An application for Leave and Judicial Review to the Federal Court is not an appeal – this application can only make decisions regarding legal errors or how the hearing was conducted. This is to say that if the board member made the wrong decision using the proper process, then the decision will stand.

The Humanitarian And Compassionate application is based on different grounds than a refugee claim. These applications do not stop removal (a deportation order can be issued while the refugee awaits a decision), take a long time to decide (upto 2-3 years) and have a very low acceptance rate (5-10%).

The PRRA officers only consider new evidence that has arisen or changed conditions. Where a claimant has had a refugee claim the PRRA is almost impossible to win; the success rate was about 3% in 2003.

Importantly, the June 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provides for a Refugee Appeal Division to which a refugee claimant could appeal a negative decision. In May 2002, Immigration Minister Denis Coderre promised that the appeal on merits would be implemented within a year. Over four years later, there is still no appeal on the merits of refugee decisions.

Fundamentally, at a most basic level, we challenge the notion that some refugees are more worthy or deserving than others; we believe that freedom of movement is a fundamental human right.