Friday, April 2, 2010

Speed, but at what cost?

Beyond the $540 million price tag, that is. That's the estimated cost of the sweeping changes to Canada's asylum system, often admired by refugee advocates south of the border as a "luxury limousine" model of process, proposed by Canada's Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, on Tuesday. While the old system was by no means perfect, the proposed changes threaten to transform one of the world's fairest asylum processes into a minefield of arbitrariness.
Claiming that the system needs reform to prevent "gaming" of the system by thousands of asylum seekers making false claims, Kenney and the Conservative party offer a bill that draws a line at those from "safe" countries. Asylum applicants unlucky enough to come from one of these nations, to be designated by an independent panel on the advice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees(!), will face an expedited process -- an initial interview within eight days of arriving in Canada, and a second hearing within sixty days (a process that currently takes an average of 19 months). If they lose their case, they will be deported within a year of this decision. While on first glance, one might think that such speedy adjudication might benefit the asylum seeker, given the amount of work required to present a successful asylum claim and the obstacles faced by a traumatized individual in putting together their case, it's hard to imagine how this will work in practice -- not to mention how these applicants will find and work with legal representatives to present their claims.
The "safe" country of origin idea is not only contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention, but places at particular risk women fleeing domestic violence or other forms of gender-based violence as well as LGBT applicants seeking protection from persecution based on sexual orientation. These asylum seekers might come from countries that are otherwise politically stable and unlikely to produce many refugees, but fail to protect battered women and LGBT individuals from violence. While the bill allows for designations to be made specific to a population in a given country -- e.g. by gender -- a system of strict guidelines risks becoming ossified and unresponsive to current situations. Moreover, such an approach may be subject to political manipulation unlikely to benefit genuine refugees.
It would be a shame to see a "Fortress Europe" approach adopted by our neighbor to the north. As the numbers of asylum claims stagnate throughout the industrialized world, asylum applications in Canada increased by 60% between 2006 and 2008. Though higher fences elsewhere may be the cause of this surge, surely there are ways to address such influxes without gutting the asylum system. Especially given Canada's 42% grant rate for asylum claims in 2009, which suggests that fraud is not a significant problem, it should continue to strive for fairness over speed in its asylum process.

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