Passage of Bill C-31: A threat to refugees and 'a black eye' for Canada

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A Vancouver protest earlier this year against Bill C-31. (Photo: Brent_Granby / flickr)

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On Monday evening in Ottawa, Bill C-31 passed third reading in the House of Commons by a vote of 159 to 132. 

As a refugee advocate, I was saddened to find out that Bill C-31 had passed the final hurdle in the House of Commons. This most oppressive bill will tarnish the prestige and reputation of Canada at the international level.

The Minister of Immigration claims that the Bill is designed to combat human smuggling. However, the real Conservative agenda is to punish the most vulnerable people of the world. Once those traumatized refugees are thrown behind bars, their suffering will be enormous. The social and psychological dimensions of their suffering cannot be measured.

Critics have also noted that the Bill puts too much power in the hands of the Minister and that it will politicize what's supposed to be a fair and impartial judicial process. The definition of a 'safe country' will be dependent on business interests. In this context, refugees will be sacrificed as commercial commodities.

I have been working with refugees for 18 years. Through my experience, I know how difficult it is to provide documents from a country where a refugee was persecuted. Therefore, a fast and hasty process does not mean a fair process. I agree that the system needs to be reformed because the vaunted Canadian immigration system is bankrupt. The backlog situation is worse than it was during the Liberal government's term in power.  

After Bill C-31 was passed last night, NDP Immigration and Citizenship Critic Jinny Sims argued that the Bill would be "a black eye" for Canada on the international stage, and she said she would not be surprised if some provisions of the Bill end up being challenged in court. 

Just recently the United Nations Committee Against Torture said that changes to Canada's immigration laws risk human rights violations, but Kenney's response was merely to vow that nobody would lecture them. Such ignorance leads to a lack of credibility inside and outside Canada.

United efforts tried to stop Bill C-31

As soon as the Minister of Immigration tabled Bill C-31, many national organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, and the Justice for Immigrants and Refugees Coalition (composed of nearly 60 national organizations across Canada) raised their voices in opposition.

For instance, on Refugee Rights Day, activists occupied the offices of the five Conservative MPs who are on the Standing Committee for Immigration. The speech by Minister Kenney was disrupted twice in Montreal on April 20, 2012 while activists were protesting outside the building. In a united effort to stop Bill C-31 and the destruction of Canadian immigration and refugee traditions, a 31-week vigil called Campaign 31 started on April 27. A coalition of concerned people in Canada has been meeting every Friday at 5:00p.m. in the northwest corner of Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto.

When I was in Ottawa recently, I raised this issue with the Liberal leader, the Honourable Bob Rae. When he answered my questions, he said that the Bill is not legal and the Conservatives are trying to politicize the whole refugee system. While we were having lunch in the House of Commons cafeteria, the former Minister of Immigration Judy Sgro explained that she thought the new Bill was horrible. She said that, whenever the Conservatives are in power, they try to change the Immigration legislation because they like people who have money, not immigrants.

Refugee acceptance rates already down

Even before this new Bill has come into effect, we have already seen the results. The refugee acceptance rate has decreased significantly. For example, we have seen many negative decisions recently with respect to refugees from Turkey. The acceptance rate of Roma refugees was high until 2010. But, after the Minister of Immigration made negative comments about Roma refugees, the acceptance rate dropped dramatically. 

A similar scenario has happened to refugees from Mexico and Europe. The acceptance rate for Korean cases is down to less than 10 per cent. After the acceptance rate dropped dramatically, Roma refugees either abandoned or withdrew their cases. This is the result of a sneaky tactic in progress: the decisions of the Refugee Board of Canada are scaring or intimidating refugees into withdrawing their cases.

With this most oppressive bill, combined with new criminal laws and the politicization of the court system, refugees will be under more severe threat than ever before.


Suleyman Goven is a Toronto-based refugee advocate, human rights activist, translator and interpreter, and the chief editor of Yeni Hayat, a monthly Turkish/ Kurdish newspaper. His 13 year struggle against an unsubstantiated terrorist label pinned on him by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) is documented in the book, Our Friendly Local Terrorist.


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