If the government’s proposed new immigration law passes, it might turn away legitimate asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, including Jews, immigration experts and community activists say.
Bill C-31 – titled Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act – is being considered in the House of Commons, and its sponsor, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney, has said he wants the bill passed by June 29, before Parliament adjourns for the summer.
Detractors such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Union and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, among others, say that provisions in C-31, including the proposed creation of a list of designated “safe” countries of origin, give too much power to ministers and don’t give refugees enough time to establish their cases before Canada’s Immigration Refugee Board (IRB).
Janis Roth, executive director of Jewish Immigration Aid Services (JIAS) Toronto, said she has concerns with the proposed safe country designation and changes in the right to appeal process.
“We all know that a country that is deemed safe for some may not be safe for others. This bill also proposes to treat refugee claimants differently depending on how they arrive – by boat or plane or as a single or in group – and whether by way of a ‘safe’ country, and as such, we are concerned about the implications for the safety and protection of bona fide refugees,” Roth told The CJN.
“There are also proposed longer waiting periods for permanent resident status and limits on travel documents for refugees that may prolong their settlement and separation from their family.”
She said that although JIAS’ annual caseload of refugees is relatively small, it’s important that the Jewish community “act on behalf of all current and all potential immigrant clients and to ensure a service delivery system that is equitable, just, compassionate and ready to respond and assist immigrants at any time.”
Immigration experts also fear that, based on comments made by Kenney, Hungary could be designated a safe country when two communities are being targeted there by the state: Jews and Roma.
In April, Kenney said he believes many claimants, specifically Roma (also known as Gypsies), from Hungary were making false refugee claims and abusing Canada’s refugee system.
An April 22 report in the National Post cited IRB statistics showing a spike in Roma claims from 2010 to 2012. The story quoted Kenney as saying that Canada has been trying to educate the Roma about how to properly apply to immigrate here.
“We tried to circulate brochures explaining ‘This is not the way you immigrate to Canada,’ and it’s had no impact,” Kenney told The Post.
In March, Hungarian-Jewish author Akos Kertesz, 80, fled to Canada and sought asylum.
He faced harassment and threats after making controversial statements last summer about Hungary’s role in the Holocaust, the Hungarian News Agency reported.
He claimed “a political campaign” had been mounted against him by Budapest City Hall and also “from within the government and parliament.”
Writing in the American Hungarian-language newspaper Amerikai Nepszava, earlier this year, Kertesz said Hungarians alone can now be blamed for the Holocaust in their country, because unlike the Germans, they have failed to admit to and repent for their crimes.
He also said that the current right-wing government in Hungary has “launched a witchhunt and fuelled the extremists” and that he has been “subject to constant harassment and threats.” He said he was attacked in the street and that his life would have been in jeopardy if he stayed in his homeland.
Kertesz’s Montreal lawyer, Mitchell Goldberg, wouldn’t comment on his client’s case, but said there were problems with Bill C-31 when it comes to Hungarian and Jewish refugee claims.
Ana Curic, Kenney’s director of communications, said that under Bill C-31, all refugee claimants, regardless of country of origin, will continue to receive an IRB hearing on the merits of their case.
“Bill C-31 will benefit genuine refugees, as they will receive Canada’s protection in a matter of a few short months, compared to the current system, in which they must wait an unacceptable two years,” Curic said.
Last month, Kenney amended the bill to allay opposition MPs’ concerns that it would unduly punish refugees with long detentions prior to the government reviewing their claims.
Instead of a 12-month detention for refugees who arrive “irregularly” to Canada, Bill C-31 now proposes a mandatory review after 14 days, followed by reviews every 180 days.
Additionally, the bill also now incorporates a provision that will allow the minister of public safety “on his own initiative and at any time” to release a detained individual when grounds for detention no longer exist, according to the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration website.
“We have listened to parliamentarians on Bill C-31 and, as a result, we have a stronger bill that will continue to protect genuine refugees, while ensuring that bogus asylum seekers are detained, processed, and swiftly removed, and sending the message to human smugglers that targeting Canada will no longer pay,” Kenney said.
But Maureen Silcoff, a Toronto lawyer and former member of the IRB, said Bill C-31 is still problematic.
“As a politician, Minister Kenney should not be deciding which refugee claims have merit, and which don’t,” she said. “That’s for an independent tribunal [like] IRB to decide, in my opinion.”
Silcoff also believes Kenney is targeting Roma applicants unfairly. She said she represents “hundreds” of Roma asylum-seekers from Hungary and the European Union, and the current cases she’s seeing are very strong
“There’s a growing fascist movement in Hungary in which Roma and Jews are being targeted” for persecution, she said.
She said so far, Hungarian Roma have been more affected, as they are a more visible minority than Jews.
“But when [Hungarian] Jews are dressed visibly, there have been many human rights reports” of attacks on Jews.
However, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration said no countries will be automatically designated as “safe.”
With files from JTA