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Canada's dubious immigration priorities


The Speech from the Throne has come and gone. Buried in the hoopla surrounding the demise of cable television bundling were some terrifically misleading claims about “progress” towards meeting Canada’s immigration priorities.

The government claimed victory in nearly halving its application backlog for permanent residency, and for eliminating entirely the backlog for economic migrants. Absent from mention in the speech was the mechanism by which the latter backlog was eliminated— a mechanism so egregious that the matter is before the Canadian courts for the second time. 

As it turns out, the means by which the government has accomplished this feat may be unconstitutional.

When Section 87.4 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act came into law, the wait list for all applications submitted before February 27, 2008 was abolished. Nearly 300 000 applicants and their dependents were simply told that because our immigration officers were over-worked, Canada was returning their applications. They could, they were informed, reapply, in the hopes that their application would then be considered.

Several of these summarily-dismissed applicants are taking the federal government to court, arguing that this action violated Canadian law. The initial lawsuit was dismissed when the Federal Court ruled that the applications had been legally terminated and that the court could not direct immigration officers to process applications. Now it is again before the courts, this time the Federal Court of Appeal. If successful, the government may well be forced to reopen the files. The issue is at least on hold for now; and in the meantime, the claim that backlogs have been wiped out or halved are disingenuously premature. 

Yet even if the court determines that the government acted constitutionally by throwing out legitimate applications, Canadians should be critical of the government’s actions. The government did not improve the efficiency of its application assessments or hire more Canadians to assess the long list of applications. Rather, it reneged on a deal it had with more than 270,000 applicants, many of whom had waited patiently for years. Given the current government’s calls for foreign nationals to wait in line and follow the rules, shouldn’t Canadians expect the government to at least play fair?

The government also claimed for itself a commitment to increasing the protection for refugees in genuine need—yet what it defines as increased protection is anyone’s guess. One might think it translates into settling a larger number of refugees. But you’d be wrong. In 2012, the government of Canada resettled the second-lowest number of refugees in thirty years: 26% fewer refugees were resettled than in 2011, 2000 short of its target. This decline occurred despite promises by then-Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenny to increase the number of settled refugees by 20%. In fact, the number of resettled government-assisted refugees had not been so low since the 1970s. The number of privately-sponsored refugees, who are resettled at no cost to the government, was also more than 1000 short of the stated target. Recent news articles have begun to draw attention to concerns that the claims of sponsored refugees have been denied in large numbers. Since May, 2013, 158 privately-sponsored refugee claimants from Djibouti alone have been denied status.

One might also reason that offering increased protection means considering the cases of individual refugee claimants more carefully than has been the case in the past. Again, not so. Instead, the government has further complicated the process by which refugees secure fair consideration for their applications. The government now designates a list of ‘safe’ countriesthat it assumes are safe and thus unlikely to produce genuine refugees. Claimants from these countries are fast-tracked, presumed to be unlikely candidates for refugee status, and denied the right to appeal if their applications are denied (as they almost inevitably will be). Hungary, for example, is such a country, despite its long history of discrimination and violent treatment of the Roma people. 

Finally, one might think that offering increased protection means offering better services to newly-arrived refugee claimants and refugees. Yet here too, you’d be wrong. As though these ‘improvements’ in refugee protection were not adequate to convey that Canada is no longer interested in meeting its humanitarian duties, the government has now rescinded the right of non-government-assisted refugees to access drug coverage, vision and dental care. Refugee claimants from ‘safe’ countries have also lost access to all healthcare provision, including emergency care. Even pregnant women will not have access to healthcare, including urgent care.

In justifying these abhorrent decisions, the government claimed that these refugee claimants were accessing better healthcare than Canadians, and furthermore that these cuts will save taxpayer money ($100 million over five years). Many refugee claimants arrive in Canada with injuries or disabilities from war or torture, and many others arrive with untreated illnesses. Refugee claimants from designated countries of origin will have access to urgent healthcare only if their illness poses a risk to the public.

The backlash against these changes by health workers, including doctors and nurses, has been vocal and public: the government’s decision is both fiscally irresponsible and morally reprehensible. Not only do these decisions display heartlessness towards the most vulnerable of global citizens, they communicate to the world that Canada is no longer interested in securing a space for itself as a country of justice and equality, one in which the rights of all those on its territory are respected and protected.

The government has been working hard in the area of refugee policy, but these changes increase protection for no one at all. If the government wants to make claims of increasing protections for refugees, it should start with the basics: by meeting its own targets and assessing claimants in a fair and transparent way. 

Patti Tamara Lenard is Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on immigration policy. Emma Kenyon is an alumni, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Photo: mars_discovery_district. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.