UN agency cites problem with Canada’s refugee-appeal proposal

OTTAWA – The United Nations’ refugee agency has turned thumbs down on the Conservative government’s controversial proposal to deny refugee claimants from "safe" countries the right to appeal if their applications are rejected.

The agency’s stand was then cheered by refugee advocates who say claimants should be judged on the merits of their individual cases, as opposed to where they come from.

Abraham Abraham, the Canadian representative of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees, laid out the organization’s concerns in a submission this week to a parliamentary committee studying the government’s package.

"UNHCR recommends that the Refugee Appeals Division should be available to all claimants, including those from ‘designated’ or ‘safe’ countries of origin," Abraham said. "The purpose of an appeals mechanism is to ensure that errors of fact or law in first instance decision making can be corrected."

The government proposed sweeping changes to the asylum process in April that it says are designed to make the system fairer and faster for legitimate refugees while speeding the ouster of "bogus" claimants from Canada.

The legislation would establish a Refugee Appeal Decision for the first time, a move applauded by UNHCR and other refugee groups.

Claimants would not, however, be allowed to appeal a negative first-level ruling if they arrived from a list of countries presumed to be generally democratic, safe and free of human-rights abuse and indiscriminate violence.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has defended the measure as essential to fixing a system that, he says, encourages abuse because phoney claimants know they can game the system for years before exhausting all their legal options for staying in the country.

Kenney has promised to consult widely on the makeup of the country list.

Abraham said UNHCR doesn’t oppose the introduction of the safe-country designation to accelerate the process of handling claims, but he warned there must be "clear and objective benchmarks" for assessing the general safety of a country and the system must be able to track gradual and sudden changes in circumstances.

New Democrat MP Olivia Chow, the party’s immigration critic, has already served notice she will seek to eliminate the safe-country designation when the committee begins clause-by-clause study.

Kenney has described the provision as "integral" to the overall balance of the package, and warned that eliminating it could kill the entire package of reforms.

Among other things, the new measures would seek to cut the time it takes for a refugee claimant to get a hearing to two months from the current 19, and cut by more than half the average 4 1/2 years it now takes before a rejected claimant is evicted from Canada.

Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees agrees that the safe-country idea should be ditched.

"Refugee determination is about an individual determination," she said. "It’s not about classifying countries."

Dench said, however, the government should at a minimum accept the UNHCR’s argument that refugees from safe countries should have the right to appeal the original decision.

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