The Liberal government has killed a controversial Harper-era initiative that did not afford all refugees the same rights and instead penalized those who came from so-called “safe countries” like the United States.
Starting immediately, Canada will remove the tight timeframe for their claims to be heard and let them appeal possible rejections, as well as grant them the right to work immediately and receive health care — benefits previously bestowed only on asylum seekers fleeing from war-torn countries and corrupt regimes.
“The system is unfair and treats people differently based on nationality,” Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told the Star in a phone interview Thursday. “The policy hasn’t worked. It was meant to introduce efficiency, but it has created the opposite effects. It’s time to go.”
The move by Ottawa follows several Federal Court decisions over the years that have chipped away at the core provisions of the so-called “safe country” policy introduced in 2012 by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government to target rising asylum claims from Eastern Europe and Mexico. The government established a list of safe countries and created a faster processing and removal system for claimants from these nations.
The Liberals’ decision to eliminate the safe country list, to be made public Friday, officially strikes down the last remaining planks of their predecessor’s controversial revamp of the refugee asylum system.
The original reforms aimed to deter “bogus claimants” whose lives weren’t in danger, but who came to Canada for economic opportunities.
However, the changes failed to stem the flow of migrants and the Conservatives did not invest the necessary resources to manage the new system.
Refugee claims from these countries were not being processed any faster, said Hussen, and added additional burden to the asylum system that was further stretched over the past two years as a result of a surge of claimants crossing into Canada from the U.S.
“We are getting rid of the last piece of the policy that is responsible for creating the legacy backlog,” said Hussen. Under the safe country regimen, refugees from the list were given limited time for claims to be heard, had restricted access to appeals and health coverage, and faced quick deportation — which the court has ruled violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Critics have long noted that people from so-called safe countries can still face persecution at home due to sexual orientation, ethnicity and religion, and for a variety of reasons their countries can fail to protect them. They also complained the statutory timelines to process safe country claims were unreasonable and created chaos and further backlogs because the previous government did not put in enough resources to let the refugee board do its job.
The safe country list initially included 23 countries and has since been expanded to 42, including the United States, Czech Republic, Hungary and Mexico.
Hussen said improving the efficiency of the asylum system has always been part of his mandate since being appointed immigration minister in 2017. Under his watch, an independent review of the system was completed, an asylum management board was established to oversee the system, the legacy backlog was cleared and additional resources were pumped in to boost the refugee board’s processing capacity.
The removal of the safe country list, however, has no impact on the bilateral Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., which bans refugees from third countries coming through the United States and seeking asylum in Canada at the official ports of entry. These so-called irregular migrants can still seek asylum in Canada if they manage to sneak in and meet exemption requirements — and be processed like all refugees.
In 2018, the federal government invested $74 million over two years to hire 64 refugee judges and 185 support staff to handle the ballooning backlog, which reached 74,000 cases as of the end of March. As part of the 2019 federal budget, Ottawa has added more resources to boost the board’s operation to allow it to process up to 50,000 asylum claims and 13,500 appeals a year by 2021.
Immigration officials said only 12 per cent of asylum claims submitted from Jan. 1, 2013 to March 31, 2019 were from citizens of the designated safe countries.