By Dale Smith
As the Commons citizenship and immigration committee holds marathon sessions to consider Bill C-11, which would reform the refugee determination process in this country, queer groups have been invited to have their say.
Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, appeared at the committee by teleconference on May 25.
"We have a number of concerns about this bill," Kennedy told the committee. She said the proposed processing timelines will have a "dramatic negative impact" on queer refugee claimants.
"[Queer] claimants generally take longer to make a claim based on their sexual orientation," said Kennedy. "They are embarrassed and ashamed to describe problems associated with their sexual orientation, and they require longer to establish proof of their sexual orientation."
Kennedy's recommendations were that the committee delete the provisions in the bill for the eight-day initial processing interview and hearing after 60 days.
Kennedy also advocated the removal of the designated country of origin list, and to allow the Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) to hear more than just new evidence relating to any refused claims.
As the legislation stands, refugee claimants coming from designated countries deemed "safe" — usually a country with democratic governance and the expectation of the rule of law — would not be given access to the RAD if their claims were rejected.
Sharalyn Jordan of the Rainbow Refugee Committee in Vancouver appeared in person on May 27 and reiterated many of Kennedy's points. While Jordan found the Conservatives willing to engage the issues, she found them determined to go ahead with the designated country of origin provisions based on their questions.
"They seem focused on this as the magic bullet that will save this overburdened refugee system, and I think it's misplaced on their part," says Jordan. "It's a very cumbersome way of dealing with the problem of sudden surges in claims. I tried to point out ways in that it's inefficient and may backfire, and certainly if you look at the UK, it's a good example of ways that it can backfire — it ends up bogging down the system in court challenges and things."
Another of Jordan's concerns is the fact that reporting on homophobic or transphobic violence and persecution in many countries is sketchy. This is hampered by the fact that the Department of Foreign Affairs doesn't publicly release their human rights reports.
"We need the best quality information we can have — that comes from a variety of sources, and it needs to be accessible to claimants themselves," say Jordan.
The message from these queer groups has reached the NDP and Bloc members of the committee and has even made an impression on the Conservatives.
"I think there's a big consensus about the necessity to remove the safe or designated country lists, or at least make sure that those people coming from those countries are not deprived from their right to appeal," says Bloc immigration critic Thierry St-Cyr.
"One could expect that it would be the cases from those countries that would be the more difficult to handle and identify if it's really a case of persecution, and it's quite awkward to remove the right of appeal from the cases that are harder to establish, and therefore it's a higher risk of errors."
The Conservatives still see the designated country of origin lists as their preferred option, but the comments from queer groups have added some nuance to their views.
"What it's really done for me, and I think for the committee, is given us a deep appreciation for the flexibility that we need to have with respect to the balance in refugee legislation," says Rick Dykstra, parliamentary secretary for the minister of immigration.
Dykstra believes that the flexibility can be applied to a geographic perspective, to queer claimants or to women as a vulnerable population in a democratic or "safe" country.
The ability to designate a population within an otherwise "safe" country is nevertheless problematic, according to Jordan.
"It's unworkable for us," Jordan says. "Queer refugees are already working against an incredible amount of doubt in the hearing room. Creating a special designation that [queer] folks from a particular country will still have access to an appeal when the rest of the nationals from that country wouldn't just creates an incentive for fraudulent claims. That doesn't do us any favours. It doesn't do the refugee system any favours."
The question has become where the Liberals sit on the position of striking down the designated country of origin provisions.
"As usual, the Liberals are split," says NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow. "Will they listen to the voice of reason and to the LGBT community? I don't know. So far the Liberal critic has said that he supports safe countries, so has the leader.
"Now, a large number of Liberal members have been saying that's not true. Certainly even as of Tuesday evening, the Liberal critic, Maurizio Bevilacqua, was still talking about how safe countries was a good concept."
"Quite frankly, if we can get the Liberal members to really get a grasp of what it means for the queer community if this passes, we can have it overturned," says Kennedy. "There are just some horrific parts of this bill, and they don't seem to be getting it. The push really has to be at this point to get the Liberals onside."
The Liberals have not yet responded with an official position on designated country of origin provisions.
"We've written to Michael Ignatieff to basically relay our concerns with respect to the bill, and we need to see some leadership on this piece of legislation from the Liberals," Kennedy says.
The committee is scheduled to finish hearing from witnesses on May 31 before moving to their clause-by-clause examination of the bill.
"It's the time to call your MP because it's a minority government," Chow says. "If the Liberals joined with the New Democrats and the Bloc, certainly the situation can change. The safe countries clause can be ditched, cancelled, deleted, eliminated, wiped out — all of the above."
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