(This column was published in the North Shore News on Dec. 3, 1997)
AG's report reveals a refugee mess
By Leo Knight
THE federal auditor general delivered a stinging rebuke to the federal government in general and the immigration ministry in particular this week in releasing his annual report to the House of Commons.
In describing the ministry's track record in dealing with refugee claims, the auditor general said, "the current system is open to abuse and, in general, does not provide swift protection to those who really need it."
Problems outlined include, "the lack of rigor in some practices of the board (Immigration and Refugee Review Board) and of the department (Citizenship and Immigration Canada)."
Admittedly, I'm not an expert in bureaucratese, but I believe that translates to "these people on the board and in the department aren't doing what they are being paid to do."
The report also cites, "the difficulty in carrying out the removal of failed refugee claimants. At the end of the audit, the department was able to confirm the departure of only one quarter of the 19,900 persons who were to have left the country."
Worse yet, there are approximately 35,000 persons currently in the system awaiting decisions on their claims for refugee status. Of these, 26,000 were new claims in 1996. If I do the math correctly, there are still 9,000 open files waiting to be decided from 1995. Considering 1998 is almost upon us, you really have to wonder what in the world is going on.
West Van Reform MP John Reynolds, the immigration critic in the Opposition, blames the minister directly.
"With a backlog of 35,000 persons awaiting decision at some stage of the refugee process and the auditor general calling the two and a half year average in settling refugee claims as deplorable, the minister should be shaken from her lethargy and excuses."
On Tuesday in the House of Commons, Reynolds attacked the minister on the report asking, "This department has 35,000 people in the backlog of refugees and we have 16,000 people ordered deported. What is the minister going to do, and tell the Canadian people, to solve this problem, not next year, or the year after, but right today?"
Good question. The answer, unfortunately, from the minister, Lucienne Robillard, was not so good. She failed to address the question, ducking and weaving, essentially saying her ministry would be considering the report and studying it, "because it is a very complex process."
No argument there, minister. But surely the Canadian public can expect something better than "studying" and "considering" when it comes to some 16,000 people wandering free in Canada when they have already been ordered deported.
Reynolds has been after the minister for answers concerning the percentage of the 16,000 who are actively engaged in criminal activity. He hasn't been very successful in getting those responses. However, a 24-hour snapshot of the arrest records of the Vancouver Police Department appear to show a disturbing trend.
From Nov. 20 to Nov. 21, 30 people were arrested for various offences in the City of Vancouver alone who were referred to the immigration department.
Threats, assault, possession for the purpose of trafficking, fraud, carrying a concealed weapon and trafficking a narcotic were among the charges listed against these individuals. Of the 30, only eight did not have a verifiable criminal record in Canada.
Bear in mind, this is only one 24-hour period. I am told this occurs every day in the city. North Van, Surrey, Burnaby and the rest of the Lower Mainland jurisdictions are not included in these numbers.
The auditor uses terms like "serious difficulties processing refugee claims." He describes such problems as "lack of rigor" and "lack of co-ordination" between the board and the department. Reynolds says the report is a scathing indictment of the department.
At the end of October, 70 immigration managers from the western region spent an idyllic week at the Lake Okanagan Resort to "develop and renew strategies to build a learning organization for the B.C., Prairies and Territories Region."
A leaked memo described the purpose of the seminar saying, "we want all staff to share in the organization's learning, development and responsibilities."
Over 16,000 people are eluding the law and evading their deportation orders. The department has a backlog of over 35,000 cases. The police are arresting dozens every day for newly committed criminal offences and the immigration managers are hanging around the spa at the Lake Okanagan Resort on our dime, "sharing in the organization's learning, development and responsibilities."
The minister wants to study the "complex issue."
Something is dreadfully wrong.