Social Affairs Commission: Letter to Federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Denis Coderre Regarding Refugee Policies in Canada

Friday, March 07 2003

The Honourable Denis Coderre
Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Fax: 613-952-5533

Dear Mr. Coderre:

We are writing today to raise several issues of importance relating to refugee policy in Canada. Reflecting on the Message of the Holy Father, John Paul II, for the 89th World Day of Migrants and Refugees (2003), we realize that “this should be a time of special prayer for the needs of all who, for whatever reason, are far from home and family; it should be a day of serious reflection on the duties of Catholics towards these brothers and sisters.”

First, we wish to congratulate the government for making the commitment in the Budget Speech to allow Convention Refugees living in Canada to apply for student loans. We look forward to the expeditious adoption of the relevant changes in the regulations concerning this matter.

Secondly, we wish to communicate our deep concern for persons seeking asylum in Canada in the light of the government’s decision on December 5, 2002, to sign the “safe third country” agreement with the United States. This agreement forces most refugees to seek protection in the first of the two countries in which they set foot. It will have broad and negative implications for many of these, our vulnerable brothers and sisters. In 2001, 35 percent of refugee claims were made at U.S./Canada borders (14,000 persons).

Asylum seekers may have many reasons to request asylum here rather than with our southern neighbour. Many groups of asylum seekers transit through United States’ territory because it is impossible for them to come directly to Canada. For others, Latin Americans in particular, the U.S.A. is a “bridge” to Canadian soil. It is conceivable that U.S. foreign policy may have supported precisely those whom they are fleeing, or that the U.S.A. would not act as a “safe” asylum for them. For example, women fleeing persecution based on their gender are more likely to be accepted in Canada than in the U.S.A. In conclusion, we certainly do not want to increase frustrations among legitimate asylum seekers, forcing them to resort to human smugglers who could increasingly offer dangerous illegal crossings (such as exist at many points along the Mexico/U.S. border).

Because of these harmful implications for thousands of asylum seekers in genuine need, we ask you to reconsider the implementation of the “safe third country” agreement with the U.S.A.

Thirdly, we would ask that you implement the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, passed on June 28, 2002, by announcing the long-promised appeal process for refugee claimants. We believe that your action to implement a feasible appeal process would greatly improve the Canadian refugee determination process, one of the few in the Western nations still to lack such an important mechanism.

Mr. Coderre, it has been reported by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees that one in every 162 persons on the planet is a refugee or internally displaced person. The astounding human need that this figure suggests appears in stark contrast to the recent precipitous drop in refugee claims made in Canada (from 45,000 in 2001 to 33,000 in 2002). We ask for your leadership, and promise our collaboration to work toward the creation of a society where those who need asylum will be met with welcome hearts. We take as our own the words of John Paul II who invited our Christian communities to “form societies in which the cultures of migrants and their special gifts are sincerely appreciated, and in which manifestations of racism, xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism are prophetically opposed.”

Sincerely yours,

Most Reverend Jean Gagnon
Bishop of Gaspé
Chair, Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops