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Bill C-31: Empowering Jason Kenney, endangering refugees

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Minister Jason Kenney. (Photo: Xtra.ca / flickr)

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The Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney, was jubilant on Monday when he came to the government microphone in the House of Commons' lobby to exult in the pending passage of his government's refugee reform bill, C-31.

The vote in the House happened later that evening, and the government prevailed.

Now, the Bill goes to the Senate. The Minister said he hopes it will all be wrapped and declared law by the end of June.

The NDP's immigration critic, Jinny Sims, did not share in the good cheer. She noted that this Bill replaces another reform that had passed with all party support in the last Parliament.

"At the time, Minister Kenney said the compromise bill was a near-miracle," Sims said.

Not even the current bill's supporters describe it as miraculous.

Tough, perhaps.

Sending a clear message, for sure.

Keeping faith with the law-abiding, hardworking taxpayers, maybe.

But no kind of miracle.

Neither the Minister nor the Opposition Critic got the kind of attention passage such a major government initiative would usually warrant.

The mainstream media has paid fairly scant attention to this legislation as the government has rammed it through Parliament. And the epic battle over the budget implementation bill, C-38, is sucking up all the oxygen these days.

Most journalists in the Commons' lobby were after clips and quotes on C-38, and even a number of the small group who gathered for Kenney's moment of exultation had no interest in the fate of asylum seekers coming to Canada and wanted to question the Minister about other matters.

A solution to 'threats' that may be politically imagined

Bill C-31 is intended as a solution to what the government sees as three "threats" to Canada and its immigration and refugee system.

The first is that the refugee determination process can be very slow. It can take a number of years to determine whether or not a person is a legal refugee.

The government says the system is slow because it allows asylum seekers too much time to make their case.

Refugee advocates and lawyers say the slowness is due to inadequate resources for the notionally independent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). A number of witnesses who testified before the Parliamentary committee studying the bill pointed out that the system would be faster if the government filled vacancies on the IRB in a timely way.

The second "threat" relates to the so-called "smuggler" boats, the Ocean Lady and the Sun Sea, that brought Sri Lankan Tamil refugees to Canada in 2009 and 2010. The government calls these asylum seekers "irregular arrivals," and Bill C-31 has a number of provisions that penalize this group.

Asylum seekers who arrive "irregularly" will be held in detention, though after vigorous resistance to this by many witnesses at Committee the government softened that requirement from one year to a period of two weeks to six months.

These "irregulars," once accepted as refugees, will not be able to bring family members to Canada to join them, for five years, will be obliged to report regularly to immigration officials and will not be allowed to travel outside of Canada.

To officials of the European Union (EU) the whole Canadian notion of irregular versus regular arrivals seems strange. Testifying before the Common Immigration Committee, EU officials said that, in fact, most refugees to their region are what Canadians would call irregular. The EU has no special sanctions against such people, who get the same treatment as all other asylum seekers.

Why are Roma seeking asylum in Canada a 'threat'?

Asylum seekers come to Canada in three ways: as sponsored refugees, "liberated" from camps in such regions as East Africa; as so-called irregulars having paid passage on vessel such as the Ocean Lady; and as independent asylum seekers who buy a plane ticket to Canada and on arrival declare their refugee status to authorities.

That last group is the source of what the government considers to be the third threat to the system.

For a number of years now the Minister of Immigration has been complaining that the largest group of asylum seekers coming to Canada have not come from nasty, conflict-ridden, "third world" countries, but from nice, liberal-democratic, western countries that are "just like us" (i.e.: "white?")

Sometimes the Minister has been vague and general in describing this phenomenon; sometimes he has been more specific.

The countries the Minister is talking about are former Communist countries of Central Europe such as Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic. The people he has in his sights are the Roma (the "Gypsies").

In the 1990s the Czech Roma -- whose lives had become much more difficult after the end of Communism, despite Vaclav Havel's message to the "white" Czech majority that history would judge them on their treatment of the Roma minority -- started coming to Canada as asylum seekers.

The IRB accepted a very high proportion of the Czech Roma as refugees and their numbers rose from a handful to more than a thousand per year with the dropping of visa requirements on Czech visitors in 2007.

This created a diplomatic problem for Canada in its relations with the Czech Republic -- and with the entire EU. The Europeans did not take kindly to Canada's blackening their reputation by recognizing that many European Roma might be victims of both discrimination and persecution.

Canadian officials buy into centuries of European anti 'Gypsy' bigotry

Czech and other European officials provided a different story about the Roma to their Canadian counterparts. They told the Canadians that the Roma are good at complaining about their mistreatment but are, in reality, the authors of their own misfortune, because of their refusal to "adapt and integrate."

The European story is that the Roma are not victims at all. They're people who refuse to work, who were the "spoiled children of Communism," and whose culture is one of indolence and criminality.

Canadian officials bought this ancient, profoundly racist story and passed it on to the Canadian government which responded, in 2009, by reimposing the visa in Czech visitors.

At the time, Kenney did not go so far as to say all Czech Roma were "bogus refugees," nor did he claim Roma were coming to Canada just to benefit from generous welfare and health benefits.

It took a little tap dancing to explain why the Canadian government was trying to block asylum seekers who, for the most part, the IRB deemed to be legitimate refugees.

In its news release announcing the visa re-imposition in July 2009, the government made this tortured argument: "The relatively higher acceptance rate of refugee claims originating in the Czech Republic masks the troubling fact that more than half of the claims are abandoned or withdrawn before a final decision is made by the Immigration and Refugee Board, indicating that many claimants may not be genuine refugees."

In other words the best case the government could make was that many Czech Roma claimants "may" not have been genuine refugees. Many were, in fact, accept as refugees by the IRB.

Needed: A fix other than visas

In any case, the visa did not settle matters with the EU. It only muddied the waters for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) Canada was trying to negotiate with the EU. A number of EU countries said they would never agree to such an agreement as long as Canada imposed visas on any member countries.

So the government was in a pickle, especially since Roma were now coming to Canada not only from the Czech Republic but from Slovakia and, especially, Hungary, as well.

In Hungary life for the Roma has become almost intolerable over the past few years. There, the openly neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, friend-of-Ahmadinejad Jobbik Party got nearly 17 per cent of the vote in the 2010 election, and works hand-in-glove with violent street-level militias who are eerily reminiscent of the brown shirts and black shirts of the 1930s.

The governing Fidesz Party is supposedly "conservative," but not in the small-government, low taxes way that North Americans know conservatives. The Fidesz folks are authoritarian nationalists with only a lukewarm commitment to democracy. Their many anti-democratic legislative measures, including restrictions on freedom of the press, worry the EU, though the Union is virtually powerless to do anything about it.

Like all political parties Fidesz has different factions. One right-leaning faction openly admires Admiral Horthy, the "Regent" of Hungary from 1919 to 1944, who formed an alliance with Hitler, and who once wrote: "As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews. I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc. should be in Jewish hands..."

This Fidesz faction also feels close affinity to Jobbik. Some of its members have attended Jobbik sponsored sessions with representatives of the Ahmadinejad regime. Needless to say, they share Jobbik's contempt for the Roma.

The idea of 'safe countries of origin' is born

Given the fact that the deteriorating human rights was pushing many Hungarian Roma to find a safe haven elsewhere, and that Canada was on the of top of the list of safe havens -- and given the fact that the visa on Czech visitors was proving to be more trouble than it was worth -- the government needed a new way to stem the continuing flow of EU asylum seekers.

That's where the idea of "safe country of origin" comes in.

Bill C-31 provides that asylum seekers from countries the Minister designates as "safe" will get short shrift indeed -- 15 days to make their case in writing and 45 days in total, after which they will, if the IRB does not accept them, be immediately removed.

In the "miracle" compromise bill that the last Parliament passed, there was also a safe country provision. But that one was much different.

The Minister would not have the unilateral right to name any country safe, without any process or need to consult in any way. The previous bill provided for an expert advisory panel on safe countries composed of human rights specialists.

One could imagine what might happen in the case of a country such as Hungary if such a panel existed. As he has already said, the Minister intends to declare Hungary (and all EU countries) to be "safe."

In making this determination, the Minister will be guided by political and diplomatic considerations, by the fact that many Canadian officials share the anti-Roma prejudices of their European counterparts, and by the fact that in the wake of his own very public anti-Roma statements many Hungarian Roma asylum seekers have given up their claims.

An expert panel would, on the other hand, examine the actual on-the-ground situation in Hungary and other potential "safe" countries.

Based on abundant empirical evidence and massive and detailed reports by such bodies as Amnesty, the Council of Europe, the United States State Department and Human Rights Watch, it is impossible to imagine that any panel would be able to recommend that Hungary, in 2012, be deemed safe.

The cruel fact is that Hungary is not safe for the Roma, and nor, of late, for the Jews. The Canadian Jewish News reported recently that there are now Jews from Hungary in Canada seeking asylum. Hungary has one of the largest Jewish populations in Central Europe.

The government' solution to this potential source of embarrassment is to get rid of the expert panel altogether.

When asked, on Monday, whether in determining "safe" status he would consider the objective human rights conditions in counties such as Hungary, the Minister mentioned vaguely that "qualitative considerations" might factor alongside "quantitative" ones. He then quickly added that the fact that so many Hungarian asylum seekers have given up their claims since 2008 was the overriding factor in his mind.

To the NDP's Simms this is all playing with numbers, and really almost beside the point. For instance, she pointed out that despite enormous pressure on a politically appointed body from a Minister who has called all Roma refugees "bogus," the IRB continues to accept a significant number of Hungarian Roma as bona fide refugees.

"Last year alone we accepted over 160." Simms told reporters on Monday, "We're not talking about one or two here. Over 160 using the measures that we use to allow for asylum seekers to be designated as legitimate asylum seekers were recognized. . . The Asylum Seekers Convention is a convention that belongs to the United Nations, that we're signatories to. And we're abandoning our obligations by putting all kinds of hurdles in the way."

In her general comment on the safe country provisions of C-31, Simms summed up the frustration of refugee advocates and human rights groups with the enormous and arbitrary power this Bill invests in one politician.

"I don't think we can say categorically that any country is safe." Simms argued, and then added, "If you're going to do it, the power should not rest in the hands of the Minister."


Karl Nerenberg covers news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist for over 25 years including eight years as the producer of the CBC show The House.

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