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Trudeau's new immigration minister must tackle Harper's nasty refugee reforms

Image: Facebook/Ahmed Hussen

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Toronto lawyer Ahmed Hussen is Canada's first refugee and immigration minister who was himself a refugee, and those who work with refugees are applauding his appointment.

It provides a huge contrast to the sort of cabinet appointments the president-elect is making south of the border -- mostly aging, paunchy, white billionaires.

But people in the refugee and immigration community have also got to be at least a bit apprehensive about the mere fact that there is a new minister.

John McCallum, the departing minister, had, in the view of those close to the issue, been doing a good job.

We all know about McCallum's and his department's success in shepherding the large, new influx of Syrian refugees. But there are lots of other big challenges for the immigration ministry, many of them legacies of the Harper government, and McCallum was just getting moving on those.

Harper and Kenney created second-class asylum seekers

Canadians might be forgiven if they did not know too much about the major refugee reform Stephen Harper's Immigration Minister Jason Kenney engineered in 2012.

For some reason, the mainstream media considered a huge piece of omnibus legislation on refugees to be a matter of little importance. Back in 2012, mainstream news outlets gave Kenney's signature  bill scant and cursory coverage. Those who did bother with it, such as The Globe and Mail, applauded it.

Kenney's reform, Bill C-31, which the Conservatives oxymoronically called the "Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act," did have a few, very few, salutary features. One of those was the creation of a fact-based appeal process within the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), the Refugee Appeal Division (RAD).

The Conservative omnibus legislation was mostly, however, part of the Harper government's general effort to curry favour with some groups by demonizing others.

Kenney established new categories of refugee that had nothing to do with the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which Canada signed 47 years ago.

The reform, which is still the law of the land, defined a significant number of would-be refugees as so-called irregular arrivals. That means they got to Canada not by buying a ticket on a scheduled flight, but the only way they could, sometimes using the services of dodgy so-called people smugglers.

It was a ridiculous distinction, since being a refugee almost invariably means you have no other choice but to travel in an irregular way.

In fact, at the time of its inception in 1951, in the wake of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the authors of the Geneva Refugee Convention assumed that most refugees would escape to safe havens by hook or by crook, that is, irregularly. The countries refugees fled would not likely provide them with exit visas and plane tickets.

The Kenney reforms, still the law of the land, punish these irregular arrivals in a number of cruel ways, including incarceration. Even children can be held in detention if they arrive irregularly.

Virtually every expert witness who appeared before the parliamentary committee considering Kenney's reform package testified that the irregular arrival provisions were an affront to human rights, and contrary to Canada's Convention commitments.

The Harper government's package also targeted another group of refugees, those that it claimed came from safe countries of origin.

The legislation gave the minister of immigration the untrammelled power to unilaterally designate any country as safe. It then re-wrote the rules to make it extremely difficult for asylum seekers from safe countries to get refugee status.

Unlike others seeking refugee status, designated safe country claimants have only a few weeks to prepare their claims and do not have any effective right of appeal if they are rejected.

And the list of countries the Harper government designated as safe is long. It includes not only Mexico, India and the U.S., but also almost all European Union countries, including Hungary.

Hungary is currently ruled by a right-wing, nationalist government, which celebrates its Nazi-collaborator wartime leader, Admiral Horthy, and openly discriminates against its 800,000 Roma citizens. It also uniformly rejects all asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa, and truculently undermines the efforts of other EU countries, such as Germany, to take them in. 

Lobbyists had been making progress with McCallum's people

Over the past year, the Canadian refugee community, which includes non-governmental organizations (many of them church-based) and lawyers who work with asylum seekers, had been working intensely with John McCallum's office on the need to change or repeal Harper's draconian refugee reforms.

It took a while to make progress.

A new minister's political staffers always face a steep learning curve. In McCallum's office's case, staffers had the added challenge of fulfilling the Prime Minister's ambitious and time-limited promise on Syrian refugees.

Of late, however, there had been reports that those lobbying the Liberal government were making good progress. There were intimations emerging from the halls of power that the Liberals were prepared to make massive changes to Jason Kenney's refugee reforms. The government was even considering, one hears, entirely scrapping the designated safe countries provision.

Policy-making in Ottawa is a complex process. It involves the bureaucracy, experts, interest groups or what some call stakeholders (who don't always sing from the same hymnbook), elected MPs of both the government and the opposition, and, crucially, backroom political operators.

Getting all these forces aligned is not easy, but refugee community lobbyists appear to have succeeded. Now, despite their jubilation at having a one-time refugee heading the ministry, those lobbyists worry they may have to re-launch their efforts.

Canada's refugee community earnestly hopes there is a good hand-off from McCallum to Hussen. The new minister could even recruit some of the departing minister's staff. People in the know believe that would be a big help.

In a CBC interview on Indigenous policies this past weekend, former Ontario Premier and interim Liberal leader Bob Rae pointed out that, so far, the Trudeau government has been very good at the feel-good, symbolic stuff. However, it has yet to achieve  much of substance for Canada's Indigenous people -- most notably substance that might cost money.

What is true for the Indigenous file is also true for other policy areas. 

Adding the word 'refugees' to the name of what used to be only the 'immigration' ministry is a typical Trudeau-Liberal symbolic gesture. It bodes well, but does nothing concrete for real-life refugees.

Naming Ahmed Hussen to the immigration and refugees job is a similar gesture. It looks and feels good, but, in and of itself, accomplishes nothing.

The proof of the pudding is always in the tasting. And in the case of refugee policy what many want to taste are major legislative changes to the previous government's reforms. 

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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Image: Facebook/Ahmed Hussen

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