Canada's Dysfunctional Refugee Policy: A Realist Case for Reform

By Gallagher, Stephen | Behind the Headlines, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Canada's Dysfunctional Refugee Policy: A Realist Case for Reform


Gallagher, Stephen, Behind the Headlines


In the aftermath of the events of 11 September 2001, the cases of Ahmed Ressam and Nabil Al-Marabh have fuelled suspicion that Canada's lax refugee laws have compromised Canadian and American security. While there is mounting evidence to support this claim, the wider question receives much less attention. Is Canada's in-country or `landed' refugee system in the national interest? (1) In my opinion, it is not. It is my contention that the existing in-country refugee system is not in the national interest because, first, it isn't a refugee system. It is, for the most part, a humanitarian immigration system. Second, it is racked by dysfunction, waste, and corruption. These are not aberrations but predictable outcomes of Canada's existing reception and recognition policies.

Although I argue that Canada's system should be reformed to bring it in line with systems elsewhere, I am not suggesting that most of the people Canada accepts as refugees and who eventually go on to become citizens are not in real need. They are for the most part people on a desperate quest for a better life. They come from economic and social situations that Canadians would find distressing in the extreme, if not objectively dangerous. The fact remains, however, that very few would gain `convention refugee status' (about which more later) in any other developed country; from a realist standpoint, that is the most important criterion. According to David C. Hendrickson, realists `find it morally acceptable that we should prefer the interests of our own collective to those of mankind in general: and they insist that the statesman, the trustee for the community, is under a peculiar obligation to serve the interests of the state he represents.' (2)

Nor am I suggesting that Canada should reduce the total number of refugees and quasi-refugees that it accepts. I am arguing that, to serve the interests of Canadians, the government must directly control the inflow and naturalization of foreigners. The policy as it now stands surrenders control of in-country convention refugee determination to semi-accountable decision-makers and the court system. The decision-makers are provided with guidelines that promote the broadest possible interpretation of `convention refugee,' one that goes far beyond that found elsewhere. At first glance this may appear admirable, but, ultimately, there is a price to be paid for maintaining an understanding of convention refugee that strays far from international norms. In addition, in many cases failed in-country refugee claimants are absorbed into various immigration categories and naturalized. By treating failed refugee claimants as perspective immigrants, Canada incurs further costs.

Therefore, the focus of reform must not only be on Canada's convention refugee determination process but also on its extended in-country (post-determination) process. Taken together, the process is slow, costly, inefficient, and a boon to those who smuggle people. This situation is unlikely to change with Canada's new Immigration and Protection Act, scheduled for implementation in 2002, because it leaves in place the two major obstacles to an efficient system. The first is the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), which is not directly accountable to the government for its decisions. The second is the many administrative and court appeal possibilities available to rejected claimants. When Britain and the United States, among others, overhauled their asylum systems in the 1990s, the result was a directly accountable and closely supervised corps of asylum officers and immigration judges whose decisions cannot be easily appealed through the court system. Thus, the governments directly control a refugee determination process that can potentially allow objectively large numbers of foreigners to obtain all the privileges of citizenship, if not citizenship itself. Canada needs similar policies if it is to address the many dysfunctions of its existing extended refugee review system. …

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Canada's Dysfunctional Refugee Policy: A Realist Case for Reform
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