Speech Article from  Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

Archived - Speaking notes for Chris Alexander, Canada's Citizenship and Immigration Minister at the News Conference Regarding Canada's Asylum System

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Pearson International Airport
Toronto, Ontario
January 22, 2014

As delivered

Thank you very much. How is everyone? Warm enough? Good. It’s great to be here with you at Pearson International Airport, Canada’s top gateway, and top connection, to the world. It’s the third largest port of entry for people from outside of North America coming into North America, so very fitting to be here for today’s announcement. Thank you very much for joining us – it’s a huge part of what we do, to be able to communicate through you.

It has been just over one year since our Government introduced comprehensive reforms to Canada’s asylum system, and I’m pleased to have the opportunity today to update you on the tremendous success of these reforms. And I underline the word “success” because the numbers that I’ll give you shortly speak for themselves – the benefit to Canada and to taxpayers, to all levels of government actually, are huge. Our country’s strong tradition of refugee protection stretches back several centuries, even predating Confederation, and it’s because of that tradition that we’ve done these reforms and have been determined every step of the way to make them a success.

Canada was a haven for United Empire loyalists, fleeing oppression in the United States in the 18th century. We were a haven for African Americans fleeing slavery in the 19th century; for Poles, Jews and Ukrainians fleeing oppression in Eastern Europe in the 1800s; for Hungarians, Czechs, Chinese, Tibetans, Vietnamese, and Afghans fleeing communist oppression in the middle of the last century; and later in the last century and more recently, we’ve welcomed refugees from South America, Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. These are just a few samplings of the many noteworthy examples of Canada’s longstanding commitment to protecting those most in need of refuge. 

In fact, since the Second World War, our country has provided refuge to more than one million refugees. Our humanitarian tradition, of course, continues today. Canada continues to rank among the world’s most generous and fair countries in our treatment of vulnerable populations. The United Nations has described Canada’s system as, quote, “a model for other countries”. We are that model for the world, and today, Canada welcomes about one out of every tenth of all resettled refugees globally, more than almost any other industrialized country in the world, even in absolute terms and according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ global trends analysis, Canada ranks number one for resettled refugees on a per capita basis. We’re proud of that record. We’re continuing that record.

The reforms we implemented a year ago honour Canada’s tradition of providing protection to genuine refugees – persecuted individuals from some of the world’s most volatile areas. Certainly, Canada has a long and proud tradition of providing protection to those who need it the most, and our Government is committed to upholding it.

Our new asylum system enables us to do just that. It’s faster and it’s fairer. We’re now able to provide faster protection to genuine refugees, enabling them to start their new lives in Canada. We’re also able to remove from Canada more quickly failed asylum claimants whose claims are deemed unfounded by the independent and quasi-judicial Immigration and Refugee Board – the IRB. This in turn reduces costs for Canadian taxpayers through savings to provincial and federal governments for welfare, education and health care costs.

And so I’m pleased to announce that due to our government’s reforms, we’ve achieved great results in making the refugee system work for genuine refugees and for Canadian taxpayers. Processing times for asylum claimants are significantly shorter than those before the new measures took effect. It now takes on average two months for the IRB to hear a claim. Contrast that to waits of 20 months or more before our changes – a year and a half faster.

This means that claims are heard and decisions are made ten times faster than before. This also means that genuine refugees are able to begin their lives in Canada much faster. Our reforms have resulted in dramatic changes with respect to source countries. Remarkably, Canada used to receive more asylum claims from liberal, democratic countries in the European Union than we did from all of Asia and Africa. In 2011, for example, Canada received 85 per cent of all claims from the European Union, whose GDP is nine times larger than Canada. There are even a few countries in the EU that have higher per capita income than Canada. The following year, in 2012, Hungary, Croatia and Slovakia were among the top ten countries of origin for asylum claimants in Canada.

This past year however, 2013, these countries were placed on a list of now 37 “designated countries of origin”. These are countries that have the institutions and protections of modern democracies, and therefore would not be expected to produce significant numbers of genuine refugees. In fact, the vast majority of these countries, I think all of these countries, in some shape or form, themselves receive refugees from countries that are not designated as safe by any of us. And so there was a paradox that so many of our claimants should be coming from these safe countries, and not from the truly unsafe countries with conflicts, with poverty, where most of the refugees are that we’ve been trying to help.

So many developed democracies now use an authority that is similar to the one that we have enacted to accelerate asylum procedures for the nationals of the countries not normally known to produce refugees. If someone came from Canada to one of these countries and claimed refugee status, they would be subject to the same kind of provision. Countries that are doing this include the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium and Finland.

António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has recognized that, quote, “There are indeed safe countries of origin and there are indeed countries in which there is a presumption that refugee claims will probably be non as strong as in other countries”. In other words, some countries are obvious and clear source of refugees, others are, more often than not, recipients of refugee flows because of their democracies and the services that they have on offer. Gutierrez has also recognized the legitimacy of providing expedited processing for asylum claimants from those generally safe countries.

So these are not reforms that we’re making on our own. We’ve shown leadership, but others are following us and these are not, I repeat not, reforms that have been anything other than welcomed by our major international partners, who saw the need to curb abuse in order to clear the way for more legitimate refugees to benefit from the generosity of Canada and other countries.

So following this example, claims in Canada from designated countries are heard on an accelerated basis, and since the creation of Canada’s designated country list, claims from these countries are down by an overwhelming 87 per cent. Hungary, a democratic country whose citizens have mobility rights throughout the European Union and previously ranked as the number-one source country for asylum claims in Canada, now ranks at 32. Claims from Hungary have declined dramatically from an average of 3,000 a year to fewer than 100 in the past year, a decline of 97 per cent.

Asylum claims from the United States have also dropped significantly, down by roughly 80 per cent from the year before. That’s 2013 numbers over 2012 numbers. As a result of the reduction of claims from safe countries, we’re seeing relatively greater numbers of claims from countries in distress, such as Afghanistan, Congo, Egypt, Somalia, Syria, Pakistan. These are countries from which Canadians would expect to receive more refugee claimants seeking protection.

For claimants arriving from these more dangerous places, our Government has actually increased the chances of protection. We’ve introduced for the first time a right to a full appeal to the newly created refugee appeal division for claimants from non-designated countries whose claims are initially rejected at the IRB. If that appeal also fails, there is permitted yet another appeal, in the form of an application for judicial review from the Federal Court. Only if they’re unsuccessful at all of these stages – IRB, refugee appeal division, Federal Court – are claimants from non-designated countries determined not to be genuine refugees.

So because this system is no longer bogged down by claimants simply looking to take advantage of our generosity, Canada is able to offer protection to these genuine refugees much more quickly. These refugees are then able to take advantage of the services that both the federal and provincial governments, as well as the institutions of civil society, NGOs, community groups, church groups, faith groups across the country, provide for refugees looking to make a new start in Canada.

I want to make this point very clear, because it seems as though some people still don’t understand the great benefit to genuine refugees that flow from our reforms. The beneficiaries of these reforms are, yes, the Canadian taxpayers, but mostly, overwhelmingly, they are genuine refugees. Our reforms are not simply about cracking down on fraudulent or unfounded asylum claims, although this is a good thing.Our reforms mean that by discouraging bogus asylum seekers – many of whom have an active connection to organized crime, are not taking the initiative to make a bogus claim on their own, are being pushed to do it by networks that themselves are illegitimate in profound ways – by discouraging these bogus asylum seekers and sending them home more quickly, we’re able to provide better service and faster protection for people who are actually in need of Canada’s protection.

So we’re returning to our roots. We’re focusing on our core business in this area, which is the protection of refugees. And that’s why we’re proud that removals from Canada of failed asylum claimants, those people who have been founded not to be genuine refugees in need of protection are occurring much faster under our new system. Asylum claimants who receive a negative decision under the new system are removed by the Canada Border Services Agency, or CBSA, approximately 23 days from the time the case is referred for removal. Faster processing times now mean that it takes roughly four months from the time a claim is made until a failed asylum claimant is removed from Canada.

Under the old system, it took about 4½ years to remove a failed claimant from Canada, often after a number of unsuccessful appeals. Before our reforms, failed asylum seekers were able to spend years in Canada, at great expense to Canadian taxpayers, even after it was determined that they did not need our protection. They were absorbing the resources of Canadian taxpayers in ways those resources were never intended to be used, and essentially taking those resources away from genuine refugee claimants, from the people who really deserve and need our help.

The illegitimate failed claimants were here because they felt entitled to be here, not because they were identified by the IRB or the United Nations as needing Canadian protection. They felt they didn’t need to play by the same rules as everyone else, and for too long, Canadian governments let them get away with this.

As part of our reforms, the Government also introduced a new pilot program here in the GTA called the Assisted Voluntary Reform, an immigration program, also run by our colleagues in the CBSA. This cost-effective alternative program complements CBSA’s general removals program by helping failed asylum claimants to voluntarily return to their home country, saving Canadian taxpayers from the higher costs of forced removals. In other words, there are certain numbers of failed claimants who do understand their situation, who do understand that they have to go, and voluntarily take the steps to make that happen, which saves us money once again.

I want to publicly thank the Canada Border Services Agency and Minister Blaney for their partnership in this successful program. In only six months of operation, this pilot program has helped nearly 2,700 individuals to return home voluntarily. That amounts to more than a quarter of the 10,000 failed asylum claimants successfully removed from Canada in the past year, following our reforms.

Our faster system has also resulted in a number of efficiencies. Because we have many fewer asylum claims under our new system, the IRB has made remarkable progress in reducing the backlog of pending claims. Genuine refugees who had been waiting for years for hearings are now receiving the protection and certainty that they need faster than they would have received it without these reforms. And those with unfounded claims, who have been living in Canada for years, are finally having their claims heard and rejected, and are being removed. In March 2010, there was a backlog of approximately 60,000 cases at the IRB. That number has decreased by more than two-thirds, by more than 40,000, thanks to our reforms.

Overall, the reduction in asylum claims, the faster removal of failed claimants, and the efficiency of the new system, have already resulted in savings to Canadian taxpayers that are greater than we anticipated. More than $600,000 in welfare, education and health-care costs have been saved to date because of these reforms. This is precisely the kind of leadership that Canadian taxpayers expect of us.

When I met with Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews last month, I made this point to her directly. We all win as taxpayers, as government-service providers, and as humanitarians when those who jump the queue, those who abuse our generosity, those who take money or generate money for organized crime, those who refuse to leave when their claims are rejected, and those who take advantage of our social programs, are forced to play by the rules, are held accountable. Bogus asylum seekers are not entitled to the same benefits as taxpaying Canadians or genuine refugees. Neither are failed claimants, who by definition are not refugees. Their claims have failed and they have no right to remain in Canada, or to defy our laws by refusing to leave when ordered to do so.

Canada is second to none it its generosity and fairness, and this is reflected in our refugee system, but we have no tolerance for those who take advantage of this generosity and consume welfare benefits and precious health-care resources. Simply arriving on our shores and claiming hardship isn’t good enough. This isn’t a self-selection bonanza or a social program buffet. We have a fair refugee determination process, and it’s essential that we maintain the integrity of our system for the benefit of real refugees.

This is why I’ve expressed our Government’s disappointment with the Ontario government’s recent decision to reinstate health-care benefits to all asylum seekers, and even to rejected refugee claimants. This health care is above and beyond the basic care that the federal government continues to provide even under our reformed system. Specifically, the Ontario government has said it will pay for “most hospital, primary, specialist, laboratory and diagnostics services provided in Ontario for refugee claimants living in Ontario, regardless of the status of their claim or the country they’re from”. 

Let me be clear what this means. Ontario will provide a full range of generous health-care benefits for “rejected refugee claimants living in Ontario,” and asylum seekers from the democratic countries of the European Union and the United States. This means that people whose asylum claims have been rejected, including those who have access to health care in Europe, will be given health care paid for by Canadian taxpayers, while Canadians, including Canadian seniors, wait behind them. This decision is irresponsible, as it makes Canada – and Ontario in particular – a magnet for bogus asylum seekers. It’s also unfair to taxpayers, who have to foot the bill, while their own access to health care suffers.

As I said, Minister Matthews and I had a good discussion, but I disagree strongly with her on this, and Ontario taxpayers will ultimately decide whose view they support. When it comes to our federal government’s refugee reforms, there is no room for disagreement. It’s clear that the new asylum system is a success, exceeding even our initially high expectations. Genuine refugees are getting the protection they need sooner, failed asylum seekers are being removed more quickly, and Canada’s generosity is no longer being abused. That’s good news for genuine refugees, bad news for bogus asylum seekers, and excellent news for Canadian taxpayers. With that, I’m happy to take your questions.  Thank you very much.

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