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Harper Government Loses Court Battle to Restrict Refugee System

It's the latest in a long line of losses for the Conservatives in the Canadian court system.
July 24, 2015, 8:45pm

Protesters outside the Central East Detention Centre in Lindsay, Ontario. Photo by Jeff Bierke

Canada's Federal Court has once again shot down the Harper government's attempts to restrict our refugee system.

In 2012, Canada's Immigration Minister implemented a new Designated Country of Origin (DCO) list, also referred to as the Safe Countries of Origin list, that includes 42 countries the government deemed to be safe for its citizens—from many EU countries to Israel, and even crime-ridden Mexico.

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Refugees originating from one of the countries on the list faced a different procedure than those from other countries. Their refugee claims were rushed through the system faster than other applications, and had no chance of appeal if they were turned down, meaning their deportations would be effective almost immediately.

The government claims the changes prevents people who aren't actually facing danger from taking advantage of Canada's refugee system.

But in a 116-page decision released yesterday, the court said the list violates the rights of certain asylum seekers in Canada and declared the whole process unfair because it "serves to further marginalize, prejudice, and stereotype claimants from DCO countries" and "perpetuates a stereotype that refugee claimants from DCO countries are somehow queue-jumpers or 'bogus claimants.'"

The court declined the government's request to delay the effect of their decision.

The Federal Court judge found that every day the policy remained in place, those refugee claimants would be "deprived of their rights."

It's just the latest in a string of defeats for Harper government when it comes to its stance on immigration and refugee issues. In February, the Federal Court ruled it unlawful for the government to ban women from wearing niqabs during their citizenship ceremonies. And last year, the court also struck down the government's decision to cut healthcare for certain refugee claimants, including those from the list of safe countries.

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Activists and refugee lawyers are calling yesterday's decision a victory for asylum seekers from those countries because they can now appeal their claims if they had previously been denied. For years, the list has received sharp criticism from LGBT groups, which are also applauding the ruling.

"A 'safe' country list cannot accommodate the current state complexity and flux in persecution and protection of Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans people," reads a 2012 submission on the DCO list by Rainbow Refugee, an NGO dedicated to helping queer refugees claim asylum in Canada. "Extreme forms of homophobic and transphobic violence often co-exist with constitutional protection for LGBT people on paper, particularly in newer democracies."

The applicants in the case include three refugees from the DCO list who tried to get status in Canada: a gay Serbian man from Croatia who fears he will be attacked or killed if he was sent home, and a gay couple from Hungary who also fear for their safety if they were refused entry. Their claims were rejected on the basis that Croatia and Hungary were democratic countries capable of protecting their citizens.

Sharalyn Jordan, an activist and professor at Simon Fraser University who has worked extensively with LGBTQ asylum seekers told VICE that South Korea is another good example of this. "It's a country that offers protections to LGBT people, but when the government discovers gay or trans people during their screening for mandatory military service, they risk being hospitalized and medicated involuntarily, because they are seen to be mentally ill," she said.

"We have worked with people who were successful as refugees because of this, but since the DCO, many were sent back into danger without access to appeal."

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander's spokesperson told the Canadian Press the government intends to appeal the court's decision.

"Asylum seekers from developed countries such as the European Union or the US should not benefit from endless appeal processes," the spokesperson said. "We remain committed to putting the interests of Canadians and the most vulnerable refugees first."

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