Rights Groups Challenge Canada Refugee Laws : Government Clampdown on Flow of Migrants Called Unjust and Unworkable

Associated Press

A government attempt to clamp down on the flow of refugees into Canada is drawing protests from church and human rights groups. They say it is unjust and won’t work.

The Canadian Council of Churches has taken the new provisions to court.

“We want the law and the practice to live up to what are fundamental principles of justice,” Tom Clark, a spokesman for the council, said in an interview.

A backlog of some 85,000 refugee cases has built up since the government declared a limited amnesty in May, 1986, for about 22,000 people then claiming refugee status.


At the New Year, Immigration Minister Barbara McDougall announced that there would be no amnesty this time and the government would spend $100 million ($83 million U.S.) for an emergency program to screen all cases in the backlog over the next two years.

New, tighter regulations intended to keep any questionable cases out of Canada on arrival at airports and border stations took effect Jan. 1.

Immigration Laws

“Many people came here making refugee claims to circumvent our immigration laws,” McDougall said. “We must restore integrity to our refugee and immigration system.”


The change does not affect the prevailing immigration system, which is expected to allow 150,000 to 160,000 people into Canada this year through normal channels.

The government clearly believes a significant percentage of those claiming to be refugees are fleeing poor economic conditions rather than political persecution, but the critics say otherwise.

Dan Heap, immigration spokesman for the socialist New Democratic Party, says the rising number of refugees can be pegged to the Third World’s conflicts while the boom in jet travel has made it easier to reach Canada.

Significant numbers of refugee claimants came to Canada in 1988 from such countries as Nicaragua, Iran, Sri Lanka, Lebanon, Panama, Somalia, El Salvador and India.

‘Human Rights Question’

“The determination of refugee status is not an immigration question,” Heap said in an interview at his district office. “It’s a human rights question.”

In the House of Commons, Heap represents the heavily ethnic Trinity-Spadina district of downtown Toronto, a traditional destination for immigrants and refugees.

His solution is to devote enough staff to refugees’ hearings so their cases can be taken up within three months. The hope is to remove the incentive for those who come to Canada for a few years of higher pay checks while their cases drag on.


Canada is the world’s second largest country in area but with a population of only 26 million. Much of its vast northern territory has limited potential for settlement. Unemployment was about 8% in 1988.

At a community legal clinic not far from Heap’s office, lawyer Robert Adamson works regularly with refugee claims.

Reasons for Leaving

“It’s not as though people suddenly decided Canada’s the easiest place to get to,” he said. “There are reasons people leave their homes.”

In addition to genuine refugee claims, Adamson said, the general confusion surrounding Canadian policy of the last few years has encouraged some to try to reach Canada in hopes there would be another amnesty.

“We see everybody,” he said. “If they don’t have a refugee claim, we tell them that.”

But Adamson said he expects that the new system to screen refugee claims quickly will bog down before unrealistic timetables for fair hearings.

The backlog has built up since the Supreme Court in 1985 ruled that anyone claiming refugee status was entitled to a full hearing, not just a review of documents as had been the system.


Level of Saturation

Clark at the Canadian Council of Churches said that while the government appears to believe Canada has reached a level of saturation with refugees, “the church’s view is that we don’t think we’re there.”

He added that the practice has been good while the laws on the books allow “the whims of the government of the moment.” He said the church council’s goal is to bring the refugee laws into agreement with the practice.

Canada’s record of receiving refugees, more than half a million since World War II, has been praised internationally.

Roger White of the federal Immigration Department said it is the highest per capita level of the industrialized countries. He said the number of refugee claims rose from 1,800 in 1981 to 30,000 last year.

White, in a telephone interview from Ottawa, said the system has been reeling in part because of “unscrupulous consultants, scam artists telling tales and basically aiding and abetting these influxes.”