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The Conservative war on refugees continues

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Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

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The Conservatives are it again -- using a low-profile private member's bill to get some nasty stuff through Parliament.

In this case, the Harper government is after people who come to Canada as refugees.

As it stands now, all people who arrive in Canada claiming refugee status under international law -- that is, based on a legitimate fear of persecution or harm in their home countries -- are entitled to provincial welfare from the moment they arrive in Canada.

Conservative Corneliu Chisu, MP for Pickering—Scarborough East in suburban Toronto, has moved a private member's bill, C-585, that would change that.

It would deny welfare to the majority of refugee claimants, who are often desperate people who fled for their lives bringing virtually nothing with them.

Under Chisu's Bill only those whose claims have been accepted by the Refugee Protection Division and those deemed to be victims of human trafficking would be exempt from the new restrictions. The minority in the latter categories would still receive provincial social assistance. Refugee claimants in the queue waiting for their cases to be heard or appealing rejected decisions would not.

What are 'bogus refugees'?

When he was Immigration Minister Jason Kenney used to complain bitterly that provincial welfare attracted what he called "bogus refugees." By that term, Kenney usually meant members of the persecuted European Roma community. In 2012, Kenney tightened the refugee process in order to stop this influx from Europe in his refugee reform bill, C-31.

C-31 established a list of "safe countries of origin" and provided for a very quick hearing process for refugees from those countries, without the right to appeal. All of the European Union countries, except for Romania and Bulgaria, were deemed safe, and the government expected that would effectively cut off the flow of refugees from such countries as Hungary and Slovakia.

However, despite the new and tougher rules -- and the efforts by the Conservatives (and their allies such as Ezra Levant) to demonize people who, by all fair accounts, do suffer intense persecution in many parts of Europe -- the acceptance rate for Roma claimants (and for another group Kenney wanted to discourage, Mexicans) actually went up, not down, after Bill C-31 was passed.

There were 183 Hungarians (mostly Roma, but also some Jews) accepted as refugees as of August 2013. It must be at least a bit awkward for the Conservatives to keep arguing a country such as Hungary is safe, when that country produces such a large number of people the Refugee Protection Division considers would be in danger if they were forced to return.

So we now we have a new measure aimed at halting such "bogus" cases, C-585.

Changing federal-provincial funding rules

You may be asking: if it is the provinces who pay the welfare how does the federal government get to set the rules?

The federal government does that through the Canada Health and Social Transfers (originally the CHST, now CHT and CST). The transfers constitute the money the federal government shares with the provinces for health care, higher education, social services and welfare (also called social assistance).

These transfers and their predecessor federal-provincial cost sharing arrangements, such as the Canada Assistance Plan, have existed since the 1960s, and are now part of the fabric of the Canadian system of fiscal federalism. Successive federal governments have modified the arrangements, but, as a rule, only after serious discussions with the provinces.

The most recent major changes came with the Chrétien/Martin government, which in the mid-1990s wanted to significantly reduce federal transfers to the provinces in order to achieve a balanced budget. Chrétien and Martin offered the provinces looser rules in exchange for less money. The provinces went along, however reluctantly.

There was one rule Chrétien and Martin did not change, however. That was the rule which stipulated that in order to get their full allotment of federal money provinces had to guarantee social assistance to all qualified residents, without exception.

Asylum seekers are, by law, residents of the provinces where they live while they await determination of their claims. As a result, all of the folks who come to Canada as self-declared refugees have, for many years, been entitled to provincial welfare.

Now that could change, if Chisu's Bill passes.

The wording of C-585 is a bit tricky.

It seeks to amend one part of the current law governing federal social transfers to the provinces. The Bill would replace the existing requirement that, when it comes to welfare payments, provinces must treat all residents alike. There would now be a restricted list of those entitled to social assistance, which would leave out a good number of people in the refugee process.

The current law provides for financial penalties for provinces that exclude any residents who have a right to welfare.

Chisu's Bill does not say whether or not the federal government would penalize provinces that might choose to be more generous in their welfare entitlement rules -- provinces that decided to continue providing social assistance to all residents, including all refugee claimants, and damn the torpedoes.

We'll see if we get any clarification on that point over the course of the House debate on second reading of C-585 that starts today (Tuesday, September 23). [When the time for that debate came on the evening of September 23, it was put off. This is what the Deputy Speaker, who was presiding over the House at the time, said: "The hon. member for Pickering—Scarborough East is not present to move the order as announced in today's notice paper. Accordingly, the bill will be dropped to the bottom of the order of precedence on the order paper."]

Minister invents distinction between 'true' refugees and mere 'asylum seekers'

What is certain is that the Conservatives do not want to encourage refugees to come to Canada -- except, maybe, for the very few it hand picks. In Question Period on Monday, Immigration Minister Chris Alexander made that crystal clear.

The NDP was questioning the Minister about the tiny number of Syrian refugees the government has allowed into Canada.

The Official Opposition's Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar pointed out that "while the Conservatives boast about resettling 200 refugees, Sweden, with a quarter of Canada's population, has given refuge to more than 30,000 Syrian refugees."

Alexander's retort was strange. He said the Syrian refugees whom Sweden had accepted were, in fact, "asylum seekers," not the kind Canada wants: "resettled refugees." 

The truth is, however, that according to the 1951 Geneva Convention, which Canada signed in the wake of the Holocaust, refugees are refugees, full stop. There is no legal difference between refugees who risk life and limb to flee to safety on their own, and those who are provided transport and assistance by the country that is taking them in.

The Harper government has invented a distinction that does not exist.

Neither Chris Alexander nor Jason Kenney nor any of their colleagues have ever told Canadians what they have against those "asylum seekers" who escape danger and persecution and make it all the way to Canada on their own steam.

We're still waiting for that explanation.

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Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

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