Tories prep refugee reforms

The government is preparing legislation to streamline the refugee system and help get rid of a massive backlog of applications, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Tuesday.

OTTAWA — The government is preparing legislation to streamline the refugee system and help get rid of a massive backlog of applications, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Tuesday.

Now that a federal election appears less imminent, the government should soon be ready to present a package that reduces the time refugee claimants remain in limbo in Canada, Kenney told the Commons immigration committee.

“This is a broken system and it needs to be streamlined.”

Kenney said he also plans to introduce better protections for live-in nannies, and tougher rules for unscrupulous immigration consultants who try to scam the system.

But the major reform would change the way refugees apply for asylum.

Most opposition members and refugee advocates agree that the backlog of 61,000 cases is far too big and that Ottawa needs to fix it. But critics fear that Kenney’s package will put too much weight on the country a claimant is from, rather than the claimant’s circumstances.

Focusing on a country’s political climate “is a backwards way of looking at an issue. We have to look at the individual,” said NDP MP Olivia Chow.

Favouring one country over another could discriminate against claimants from otherwise safe countries who have legitimate reasons for seeking asylum — such as victims of domestic violence or persecuted gays and lesbians, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

But Kenney argued that it’s “common sense” for the refugee system to recognize that some countries are far less likely than others to produce victims of true persecution.

Now, a claimant can linger in the system for up to five years, waiting for hearings and appeals and final decisions, he pointed out. At that point, some rejected refugees can still win permission to stay on humanitarian grounds, because they have become too integrated to be thrown out.

Kenney rejected a Bloc Quebecois proposal to add another layer of appeal to the existing system, saying that would drag the process on even longer. But he would accept stronger appeals mechanism, as long as it is part of a legislative package that streamlines the system overall.

Each claim costs taxpayers about $29,000, he said, so it’s important to weed out false claims as quickly as possible while allowing legitimate refugees to get on with their lives.

Since the government decided this summer to require visitors from Mexico and the Czech Republic to have visas, the number of refugees has “slowed to a trickle” and saved taxpayers $37-million, he said.

Visa requirements are a clumsy tool for controlling the refugee process, however, and a fundamental rethink of the entire system is needed instead, he added.