By Heather Scoffield
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is warning that the type of refugee reforms the Conservative government has in mind need to be handled with an abundance of caution.
Antonio Guterres said streamlining refugee applicants according to their country of origin is a legitimate way to speed up the process, but authorities need to ensure this system takes into account that some countries generally assumed to be safe may actually be dangerous for some groups - especially women and homosexuals.
"There are certain areas where, even if you live in a . . . political democracy, you have still a certain number of important grounds for a well-founded fear of persecution to be real," said Guterres.
The senior UN official, who was careful not to mention Canada by name, said countries adopting a two-tier triage for refugees need to make sure they don't block access for legitimate claimants. And they must couple the triage with a robust appeals system to make sure no one falls through the cracks.
Otherwise, they risk rejecting people who risk being subject to persecution such as genital mutilation, forced marriage or discrimination based on sexual orientation, Guterres said.
But it is possible to set up a two-tier system that is flexible enough to take these types of circumstances into account, he added. The key is to make sure the decision-makers are focusing on individual cases rather than simply the claimant's country of origin.
"Asylum is not given to countries. Asylum is given to people," Guterres said. "And this must be in the centre of any asylum system."
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is poised to introduce major reforms to Canada's system as soon as next week. He is weighing the idea of implementing a two-tier system that would quickly dismiss claimants from countries that have been deemed safe.
The legislation has been months and months in the making. Cabinet concerns about the implementation costs has held up a final version of the bill.
The package would also attempt to strengthen the appeals system, so that legitimate refugees can get the all-clear more quickly and rejected claimants can be weeded out fast.
Kenney says that such a system would speed up decision-making on refugees and help get rid of Canada's huge backlog of claimants awaiting a decision.
Guterres vindicated that goal on Wednesday, saying it's not fair to legitimate refugees to keep them waiting for months, if not years, in legal limbo.
But Kenney's critics fear his proposals will deny access to people in danger in their home countries. They also fear he will downgrade the appeals system by handing it off to bureaucrats.
A two-tiered system "is a very blunt instrument," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Guterres met with Kenney during his trip to Ottawa. He will also be speaking with the Governor-General, members of Parliament and non-governmental organizations.
His main message was to draw attention to the shrinking number of safe areas around the globe.
The number of people seeking refuge is stubbornly high, he said. At the same time, people are remaining refugees for longer periods of time, and they're having a harder time finding safe areas.
"There's a shrinking of humanitarian space," he said.
The world is rightly paying attention to violence and conflict in countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, where unrest threatens world security, he added.
But humanitarians also should not forget about areas with violence and human rights violations that don't threaten to spill over into other countries but are still unacceptable, he said. He pointed to the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Colombia, Central African Republic and Sri Lanka.