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The dangers of Canada’s new refugee laws

The below is an extract from Human rights Watch’s open letter to Canada’s newly elected government on human rights priorities (see full text here).

In June 2010, Canada's Parliament passed the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. Human Rights Watch is concerned about the act's "safe-country of origin" provision, which allows the minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism to designate certain countries or parts of countries as "safe."

The application of this provision is problematic. It is impossible to make a blanket determination that any country is safe for everyone, and the criteria by which the minister would make such a determination are unclear.

For example, while generalized armed conflict may have been abated or reduced in recent months or years in some countries such as Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Kyrgyzstan, it would be unfair to individual refugee claimants to designate the whole or parts of such countries as safe so long as government authorities and private actors continue to persecute groups and individuals.

If a refugee claimant comes from a country or part of a country that the minister designates as "safe," the individual merits of that person's claim and unique circumstances that may put them at risk in their home country are not given due consideration.

The provision sends people seeking asylum from these places to a fast-track system where they will be processed more quickly and have fewer rights to appeal than other claimants.

The lack of clear criteria for designating countries as presumptively safe also runs the risk of injecting foreign policy and other political concerns into a refugee status determination process that ought to be free of bias.

Canada should commit to treating refugee claimants with respect, dignity, and a thorough and objective consideration of the individual risks they face in their home countries. Canada should revisit the Balanced Refugee Reform Act to ensure that the Canadian refugee claims system does not shortcut fairness in the name of efficiency.

Human Rights Watch is also concerned with the proposed amendments to sections 20.1, 56.2, and 57.1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act under Bill C-49, the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act, which set forth mandatory detention for designated foreign nationals who arrive irregularly and deny them judicial review until twelve months have passed.

This approach, in effect, punishes asylum seekers whose only means to flee persecution may be by turning to smugglers, instead of targeting the human smugglers who organize the boats and capitalize on the desperation of people seeking protection.

That these amendments would also preclude recognized refugees among such designated groups from applying for permanent residence or family reunification for another five years indicates that these measures are not driven by legitimate national security or other concerns, but rather are intended to deter groups that may include some of the world's most vulnerable refugees, such as boat people, from seeking asylum in Canada.

We recommend against reintroducing the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act, particularly the proposed amendments to sections 20.1, 56.2, and 57.1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which, if enacted, would effectively punish one group of refugee claimants because of their irregular entry, which is incompatible with Canada's obligations under Article 31 of the Refugee Convention.

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