Help the Real Refugees: Canada needs to distinguish quickly between those who genuinely need protection, and those who abuse the system

Commentary, Immigration, John Carpay


Once again, Canada’s broken refugee system has made the headlines, this time due to criticism of the RCMP investigation into the MV Ocean Lady, a freighter which arrived in British Columbia in 2009 carrying 76 illegal migrants. A year later, no criminal charges have been laid in connection with the human smuggling operation.  The botched investigation only serves to highlight the more general problems plaguing Canada’s refugee system, and our country’s reputation as an easy target for bogus “refugees” and smugglers alike.

In the past 25 years, over 750,000 refugee claimants have entered Canada, with a backlog of over 50,000 claims now waiting to be heard.  While the Immigration and Refugee Board eventually finds the majority of claims to be invalid, human smugglers and traffickers can still truthfully promise their victims guaranteed entry into our country, access to “free” food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and legal representation, for a minimum of several years while claimants exhaust all avenues of appeal. 

Canadians want to ensure that no refugee is returned to a country where she or he will be tortured or murdered.  At the same time, Canadians do not want to see our refugee claims process abused by those with false tales of persecution, or by economic migrants seeking to bypass Canadian immigration laws.

The fundamental weakness of our refugee claims system is its inability to distinguish quickly between those who genuinely need protection from persecution, and those who abuse our system by avoiding normal immigration rules.  As a result, Canada’s current system undermines respect for the rule of law, encourages human smuggling and trafficking, costs taxpayers billions of dollars, and reduces public support for assisting real refugees.

Unfortunately, whenever governments contemplate policy changes, Canada’s refugee lobby groups quickly denounce reforms as violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the United Nations Refugee Convention, or both.  In particular, the refugee lobby always refers to the 1985 Supreme Court of Canada Singh decision, claiming that this ruling entitles every refugee claimant to a full oral hearing under the Charter. This narrow interpretation has created a seemingly permanent backlog of tens of thousands of refugee claims, as these oral hearings take great amounts of time and resources to complete.

But the Singh ruling merely requires an adequate opportunity for a refugee claimant to state his or her case, and to know the case to be met; oral hearings are required only where a serious issue of credibility is involved.  Canada could therefore streamline its processing of refugee claims by dispensing with a full oral hearing where no serious issue of credibility is involved.

Canada should replicate the practices of European Union countries, which are also signatories to the Refugee Convention.  EU countries do not accept refugee claims from designated “safe countries” that respect human rights.  Refugee claimants providing no obvious or credible reasons for fearing persecution, or whose stories contain inconsistencies and contradictions, who arrive without documents or use false documents, or who do not cooperate with officials, see their claims quickly rejected as “manifestly unfounded.”  Further, when a refugee appeals an unfavorable ruling, this does not suspend an order for that refugee’s removal.

There is nothing illegal about helping real refugees by creating a system that quickly and effectively identifies unfounded refugee claims, thereby freeing up limited resources to help those  who are truly in need.  Neither the Charter nor the Refugee Convention requires Canada to provide a lengthy appeals process to every person claiming refugee status, nor is Canada obligated to house, clothe, feed and care for tens of thousands of refugee claimants for years while they exhaust all appeals.  Neither the Charter nor the Refugee Convention prevents Canada from quickly deporting non-citizens whose refugee claims clearly lack merit. 

Canada can choose to grant only temporary protection status to refugees, returning them to their country of origin when circumstances there have changed.  The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in Singh and numerous other cases that only Canadians have a right to enter, move within, and remain in Canada.  This well-established legal principle empowers the federal government to detain non-citizens at the border or elsewhere, and to process refugee claims off-shore, in order to protect Canada’s sovereignty and borders.

The greatest beneficiaries of these reforms will be genuine refugees, whose claims can be processed expediently in the absence of backlogs caused by so many unfounded claims and the lengthy appeals of those unfounded claims. The time has come for Canada to create a compassionate and humanitarian system for processing refugee claims – one which helps genuine refugees, not imposters.