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UNHCR calls for safe country review mechanism

By Anca Gurzu      
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Even people from a safe country of origin may have a legitimate request for protection, says the director of division of international protection at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. So any reform of the Canadian refugee system would need to include a review mechanism to ensure potential erroneous decisions can be corrected.

“We just want to make sure that if you use the procedural tool of a safe country of origin, and that if a wrong decision is made at the first instance, that there is a correction build into the system,” Volker Türk told Embassy this week during a visit to Ottawa. “At the moment we don’t see that.”

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tabled Bill C-11 in Parliament at the end of March, proposing several new measures to reform the refugee system, which he says has recently seen a wave of unjustified asylum claims from democratic countries. Among others, the new law would aim to speed up the refugee process and would also see the creation of the Refugee Appeal Division.

One measure that has drawn the most attention and criticism, however, is the safe countries of origin list. The minister would be able to put together a list of democratic countries with a sound human rights record which don’t normally produce refugees.

Under the proposed legislation, neither the minister nor claimants from a safe country of origin would have the right to appeal a failed claim at RAD. Claimants would, however, be able to appeal at the Federal Court.

“Of course there are countries in the world where the democratic evolvement, human rights development and protection are very good, and you could say that 99 per cent of people from this country would not face difficulties. But you never know,” Mr. Türk said. “There’s always the one or two cases where indeed people may have a legitimate protection interest.”

Mr. Türk and his team at the international protection division in Geneva develop policies and advise both UNHCR offices and states on how to tackle the threats faced by those forcibly displaced.

Although details of how such a review mechanism would work remain unclear, Mr. Türk said its existence is important “in order not to frustrate the judicial mechanism at the highest level.” One example would be to have a reviewer re-examine the merits of a case and potentially allow a claimant from a safe country of origin the right to appeal at RAD.

“We would want to see the possibility of review in the bill that would ensure quality control of that first instance decision,” he explained.

Mr. Türk, who praised Canada’s commitment to refugee protection, said he will have a chance to express his specific concerns about the bill in front of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration next week.

Meanwhile, members of this committee have been hearing from several groups and refugee advocates on the bill over the past few weeks.

Although welcoming the positive aspects of Bill C-11, many of them also reflected Mr. Türk’s points and targeted the safe countries of origin proposals during their address.

“The introduction of the safe or designated countries of origin, is, in our view, a serious mistake,” Wanda Yamamoto, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told committee members last week. “Under the proposed bill, nationals of designated countries would be denied access to an appeal on merits. They would also face a bias against them even at the first level since decision makers would be aware of the government’s judgment on the country.”

Ms. Yamamoto said her group understands the importance of dealing with unfounded refugee claims, but also pointed out that even in countries deemed safe women may suffer gender-based persecution, while gays and lesbians may also suffer abuse.

Concerns over these specific groups were also raised by Amy Casipullai, policy and public education co-ordinator at the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.

“The point is that each circumstance would be unique and would deserve full and fair consideration on the merits, and we fear that the fast process would not allow that to happen,” Ms. Casipullai said. “We are concerned that this process would become highly politicized and would then have an impact on refugees, with the possibility of tragic consequences.”

The potential political implications that come with the creation of the safe countries of origin list were also raised last week at the committee by Mitchell Goldberg, from the citizenship and immigration law section at the Canadian Bar Association.

“The designated list unnecessarily politicizes the process,” he said. “People who are deemed to be on this designated so-called safe list would be denied this very important, very crucial appeal on the merits for life and death decisions.”

Michael Bossin, past president of the refugee network at Amnesty International, said the safe countries of origin clause would treat claimants differently based on the reputation of their country of origin, which is unfair.

“They are not treated differently because of what they did, they’re treated differently because of the national country of origin, from where they come from.”

The committee will continue to hear from groups and community members until the end of the month, before members start proposing their amendments to the bill.

agurzu@embassymag.ca

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