Background: Canada is taking a harder line on refugees

While Australia and Canada share many similarities, geography sets them apart when it comes to attracting migrant ships. Canada was faced with two boat arrivals in two years - a total of 568 people. Australia, just 360 kilometres south of Indonesia, saw 1,798 people arrive by boat in July of this year alone.

"Four hundred and ninety-two people came aboard the MV Sun Sea, but it was treated as a national crisis," said Vancouver refugee lawyer Douglas Cannon. "In fact, it's one week's worth of refugee claimants to this country. One week's worth."

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Canada deals with 20,000 to 30,000 refugee claimants a year, most of whom arrive by air. The majority are government-assisted refugees, or people who have been accepted as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and are waiting for resettlement. Asylum seekers are people who make a refugee claim when they arrive in the country unannounced by air, or more infrequently in Canada, by boat. Last year, more than 6,600 people made refugee claims in Canadian airports.

Canada remains one of the most generous nations in the world toward refugees. The government is increasing the total number of refugee resettlements each year by 20 per cent, so that by 2013, Canada will resettle up to 14,500 refugees and people in vulnerable situations, according to Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Canada takes one in 10 of the refugees resettled through the UN High Commission, more than almost any other country in the world.

But NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims said the Conservatives' recent changes represent a major hardening in Canada's attitude toward refugees.

"It transforms very, very dramatically the way we treat refugees when they first arrive in our country," Sims said. "It actually transforms the image people have of Canada when they see the kind of laws we're passing that seem to be very anti-refugee."

On a September 2010 trip to Australia, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney met a group of refugee advocates from non-governmental agencies to talk about the effects of mandatory detention. Paul Power, CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia, and Paris Aristotle, head of Foundation House for Survivors of Torture and Trauma, were at that meeting.

"We certainly talked about the psychological impact, the self-harm, the significant mental-health problems of people while they're in detention, the fact of the slow recovery rates from that harm after those people are released from detention. We talked about the effect on children in detention," Power said.

The mandatory detention system is also hugely expensive, costing the Australian government almost $800 million a year. But the warnings fell on deaf ears.

Passed June 28, Bill C-31 will require mandatory detention for so-called "irregular arrivals," which will include any boat arrivals or cases where human smuggling is suspected. The detention will be reviewed after the first 14 days and then every six months - instead of after one year, as originally proposed. Previously, immigration detention was reviewed every 30 days.

Asylum seekers will be held in detention until the Immigration and Refugee Board makes a decision on their claims or orders their release. That means people could be held in detention indefinitely as their refugee claims wind their way through the system.

The average processing time for claims is 18 months, and the majority of claims from the MV Sun Sea and the Ocean Lady are still being processed two and three years later. The fastest refugee claim from the Ocean Lady was processed in 27 months, and 94 of the refugee claims from the MV Sun Sea took 26 months to finalize.

Catherine Dauvergne, a University of British Columbia law professor and expert in Canadian and Australian immigration law, says the new bill gives too much discretion to the immigration minister to designate a group as an irregular arrival, and to decide the length of someone's detention. "It really adds a political element to detention, which is one of the most worrying things about this scheme," Dau-vergne said.

It's also expensive. It costs $239 a day to keep someone in immigration detention, or more than $87,000 a year. It cost the Canada Border Services Agency $24 million to intercept, process and detain the asylum seekers from the MV Sun Sea. That $24 million also includes antihuman smuggling efforts by CBSA officers overseas. The cost to the Immigration and Refugee Board, largely for detention reviews, was $900,000.

Bill C-31 also takes away the right of "irregular arrivals" to appeal the refugee board's decision on a claim. They can request a federal court review, but 99 per cent of those requests are turned down. "The lack of appeal is a really very serious problem," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "When you have some people who get access to appeal and others don't, that just seems fundamentally unfair."

The government has also scaled back health benefits for asylum seekers who arrive by boat and people who come from "designated countries" that the immigration minister decides are unlikely to produce refugees.

The bill implements harsh sanctions for refugees who arrive by boat, including a five-year ban on family reunification, permanent resident status and travel. Their claims can also be reassessed within five years, and their refugee status could be revoked if the minister deems it safe for them to return to their country.

Definition of a refugee

Refugees are people within or outside Canada who fear persecution and going back to their home country

Citizenship and Immigration Canada relies on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), other referral organizations and private sponsorship groups to find and refer refugees to be resettled in Canada.

Canadian citizens and permanent residents can also sponsor refugees from abroad who qualify to come to Canada.

In 2011, of the 34,227 refugee claims processed, about 38 per cent were accepted, 46 per cent were rejected, five per cent were abandoned by the applicant and 10 per cent were withdrawn because the person was excluded from making a refugee claim.

Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada

Why follow Australia

Before the arrival of the MV Sun Sea, Canada detained asylum seekers only while health, security and identity checks were done and then released them on bond or with requirements to report regularly to immigration officials.

While the Tamil asylum seekers from the MV Sun Sea or Ocean Lady were held in custody longer than asylum seekers who arrive by plane, most were released into the community after an average of four months.

And none have violated the conditions of their release, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.

That has refugee experts in Australia asking why Canada is taking cues from that country's mandatory detention policy when it has proven costly to the taxpayers, damaging psychologically to asylum seekers and unsuccessful in preventing boat arrivals.

Sarah Hanson-Young, a senator for the Australian Green Party who was part of a joint parliamentary committee tasked with investigating the detention system, says Australia has not set an example that any country would want to follow.

When the report was released in March, it portrayed a system that spits people out much more damaged than when they came in.

In many cases, the hopelessness, waiting and uncertainly is so unbearable, detainees have resorted to self-harm and suicide attempts.

The parliamentary committee's key recommendation was a maximum of 90 days' detention for processing and health and identity checks.

After that, it said, individuals should be released into the community, with a requirement to report back regularly while they await the outcome of their refugee claims.

Those recommendations have been largely ignored.

Jo Szwarc, manager of policy and research at Foundation House, which provides counselling and other services to refugees, says: "We've seen that it's expensive and damaging to lock people up for extended periods. So really, the big question is, why would you do it?"

Two cases: MV Sun Sea, Ocean Lady

The MV Sun Sea arrived in August 2010 with 492 passengers aboard: 380 men, 63 women and 49 children.

As of Oct. 30, 28 people have been accepted as refugees, 43 people have had their claims rejected and 23 claims have been withdrawn.

40 people were subject to admissibility hearings before applying for refugee status, which occurs when the border services agency alleges that the individual is a security risk.

Of those, 25 people were issued deportation orders following negative admissibility hearings at the immigration and refugee board - 11 because of alleged membership in a terrorist group, and the rest for acting as crew members and therefore being complicit in human smuggling.

18 people were found by a judge to be admissible to make refugee claims, but the immigration minister appealed 10 of those cases.

In three cases, the judge's original decision was overturned, resulting in deportation orders. The Ocean Lady arrived in October 2009 with 76 men on board, including one minor.

One person has been given a deportation order. Nine people have been accepted as refugees and 14 people have had their claims rejected. One claim has been withdrawn.

Asylum-seekers by the numbers

Politicians in Australia and Canada have used the term queue jumpers to describe asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre said there is no queue or processing system accessible to asylum seekers in their home countries. By definition, to be considered a refugee you must be outside your country of origin.

• Only 0.5 per cent of the world's 15.37 million refugees had access to a queue in 2011.

• With only around 80,000 places worldwide allocated each year for resettlement, if all of the world's refugees were to join a queue, the wait would be 192 years.

• Australia received less than one per cent (15,441) of new asylum applications worldwide in 2011. South Africa received 171,702, U.S. 76.000, France 52,100, Germany 45,700 and Canada 25,000.

Courtesy of the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre

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