The Harper government v. refugees, 2006-2015

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It has been nearly a decade since the Conservative party came to power. Since then, the government has embarked on controversial reforms that have had devastating effects on refugees, as well as damaged Canada's reputation as a refugee-welcoming country. The following are the most significant changes that have been enacted:

2009-2013: Funding cuts to the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)

The government reduced its financial assistance to UNRWA from $32.4 million in 2007 to $19 million in 2009, and by close to $15 million between 2010 and 2012. In 2013, it did not provide any funding. Since 1950, UNRWA has been mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to provide health, educational and social services as well as emergency relief for Palestinian refugees in camps in the Middle East. The funding cuts are taking a heavy toll on Palestinian refugees, especially those fleeing the war in Syria. "We are cutting back services to people in situations like the one in Yarmouk because governments, like the Canadian government, have been cutting our funds," noted UNRWA's spokesperson in an interview with the CBC on April 9, 2015. As a result, he added, Palestinians living in Yarmouk, who are already on the verge of being slaughtered, have been surviving on 400 calories a day.

2010-2012: 'Irregular arrival' and detention

The Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act, later incorporated into the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act, was introduced in response to the arrival of a MV Sun Sea ship carrying 500 Tamil refugees on August 14, 2010. Under this provision, the Minister of Public Safety is entrusted with the power to designate "the arrival of a group of individuals who entered or attempted to enter Canada in a manner that runs contrary to Canada's immigration laws" as an "irregular arrival." The bill, according to the Minister, aims to protect those who are being smuggled or might be smuggled, by sending a clear message that Canada will not tolerate such actions. Yet the legislation means that individuals who are 16 years of age and older are subjected to imprisonment, detention, and other disciplinary measures. There is no time limit on the period of detention, which largely depends on ministerial powers and the time taken for immigration officials to consider refugee claims.

2011-2012: Two-tiered refugee system

The government has adopted the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act. The act, according to the Minister of Immigration and Citizenship Canada (CIC), intended to deter 'bogus' refugees from coming to Canada and abusing Canadian tax money, while ensuring a quicker response to the needs of 'genuine' refugees, especially those living in refugee camps abroad. The act granted the Minister the discretionary power to determine the Designated Countries of Origin (DOC). Claimants from countries designated by the Minister as autocratic or undemocratic would have more time to prepare for an Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) hearing than claimants from countries deemed safe and democratic. Also, the former would enjoy guaranteed access to the IRB's refugee Appeal Division, which the latter would not be able to access. In a news conference, the Minister explained that the act means "That someone who's just gotten off a plane, who somehow managed to get out of a prison in Iran or in North Korea, who arrives at one of our airports, won't have to wait a year and a half for protection, but could receive it in a matter of weeks." The Minister also committed to increase the number of refugees resettled from overseas, which the government failed to do.

2012: Health-care cuts for refugees and refugee claimants

In 2012, CIC made cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program that affect refugees from designated countries of origins, unless they pose a risk to public health. The program was established in 1957 to provide refugees and refugee claimants with basic and temporary healthcare while waiting for provincial coverage. The Federal Court ruled that these healthcare cuts are "cruel and unusual," and that they "potentially jeopardize the health, the safety and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages Canadian standards of decency" (CBC, 2014). The court struck down the government's proposed changes. The government, though, plans to appeal this decision.

2014-2015: Bill C-51, the Anti-Terrorism Act, and Refugees

While Division 9 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act already allows the government to ask the court to protect secret evidence used during immigration and refugee determination proceedings, Bill C-51 proposes to expand government powers by preventing the person's Special Advocate from reviewing information that the government deems irrelevant. In its response to the bill, the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) commented on March 11, 2015 that "[Bill C-51]…makes the process even more unequal (an equivalent right of appeal is not given to the person affected) and risks adding extra delays to an already long-drawn out process."

Suha Diab holds a PhD in Public Policy and Political Economy from Carleton University. 

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