If you walk down the 2600 block of East Hastings Street, you can see, at the end of a path set back from the street, a community police station. On the second floor above it stands a plain white office, bearing the sign VAST. This stands for the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture, a charity founded in 1986 to help refugees confront their traumas and adjust to a new land.
Up the stairs and past the reception desk, a small potluck gathering of about 20 people is in progress to celebrate Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Guests from Uganda, Serbia-Croatia, Mexico, Iran, Cuba and other nations, some who call VAST their second home, are swapping recipes and stories.
Mariana Martinez Vieyra, VAST's affable and ebullient clinical supervisor, who moved to Canada from Argentina nine years ago and obtained a masters degree in counselling from UBC, is moving amongst the guests, dispensing advice and information.
Vieyra explains that besides being the only specialized trauma counselling centre in Western Canada, VAST helps refugees of all classes and backgrounds find housing, food, clothing, work, translators, doctors and lawyers. Some torture claimants awaiting government decisions on their refugee applications hang in limbo for years as they navigate the slow, complex, confusing immigration bureaucracy. With its motto of "Helping Over 10,000 Survivors Discover Freedom," VAST has a current caseload of 500 clients.
Where do the people come from? VAST has helped clients from over 50 nations, mostly refugee claimants at the airport or border. Many are from Mexico, escaping deadly drugs cartels that kidnap people to recruit them. Others are women leaving spousal abuse in India. But most come from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan-and many of these are gays, lesbians and transgendered people. (No torture claimants would be interviewed for this story, because their experiences were too painful to recall, and they feared their family back home might be punished if they publicly complained about their home country's abuses.)
The potluck this day seems relaxed enough. Yet for some, dark clouds loom ahead, and there might be fewer guests at next year's Nowruz event. That is because in June, the federal government is due to pass Bill C-31, the biggest overhaul of immigration and refugee policy in many years, one that critics fear will make it much harder for legitimate refugees such as torture victims to enter Canada, and perhaps be returned to their original country.
Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says the bill is "faster and fairer," will weed out bogus refugee claimants, make the nation more secure from terrorists and war criminals, and save taxpayers money.
Kenney's reforms have a few supporters. For example, a biting editorial in the National Post in June 2010 stated that "the Liberal caucus [is] so beholden to ethnic political chiefs, immigration industry activists, and their own ideological sappiness that they oppose any move that might reduce the influx of new immigrants and refugees."
But of course there are contrary viewpoints.
Because of its charitable mandate that forbids political activity, VAST executive director Christine Thomas says she can't publicly criticize Ottawa. But local immigration lawyers, human rights activists, MPs and others are keen to speak out, to condemn Bill C-31 as an utter disaster for human rights, one based more on cynical politics and reactionary ideology than humanity or the facts.
Longtime Vancouver immigration lawyer Phil Rankin says Bill C-31 is an even worse version of earlier refugee bills. "Every time they revise it, the minister's discretion becomes greater, the timelines become shorter, the safeguards become fewer, the number of people who can access become less, and so we end up with this total nightmare for refugees. It could result in people being sent home to their deaths."
Are such outcomes indeed possible?
B ill C-31 was introduced in February by Minister Kenney as a revision of two older bills (C-11 and C-4), and critics say all the good features of those bills have been dropped, despite Kenney having once praised those features in his speeches. They object most to four major changes.
First is the new concept of a "safe country list." The immigration minister would have the power to place countries on the list without the benefit of a committee that was to include human-rights experts. (The committee would be scrapped.)
Kenney did not speak to the Courier, but his office referred us to West Vancouver Conservative MP John Weston, a member of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, who defended the idea.
"It's not the minister alone who decides," Weston says. A country would be designated as safe when 60 per cent of claims are withdrawn by claimants or abandoned, or 75 per cent were denied by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). Once that happens, the country is not automatically designated as safe, but there is a further review, and then the minister can make the declaration. "We're trying to become objective, and have a faster system so those applicants from safe countries will be processed in 45 days, not 1,000 days."
Many groups such as Amnesty International say the idea is mistaken from a human rights analysis viewpoint, as too broad and not precise enough, that is, a nation is not all good or all bad. For example, a single group such as the Roma might be mistreated in a nation that is democratic in every other way. As well, they say the minster does not have the expertise to make the final choice.
"There is no such thing as 'a safe country' in the world," says Rankin.
Vancouver-Kingsway NDP MP Don Davies, who is also vice chair of the House immigration committee, generally agrees. "People should have an individualized assessment of their case, not based on broad stereotypes of the country they're from."
Weston replied that this option is no longer affordable. "You could say in an ideal world where resources are unlimited, we would spend millions to process every refugee claim from everyone who wanted to file one. But when you see that two billion people-as one consulting firm said-would like to become Canadian, then you have to make hard decisions with scarce tax dollars."
Opinions differ on whether Mexico should be listed as a safe country. "Trade relations like NAFTA can cloud our judgment on human rights," says Davies. "Mexico has some feature of a democracy but some not. Corruption has penetrated the judiciary, police and politicians, and thousand of Mexicans are bona fide refugees."
But Weston, who is also president of the Canadian-Mexican Parliament Friendship Group, has more faith: "increasingly Mexico is becoming a robust democracy."
The second objection to Bill C-31 is that claimants from nations on the safe country list whose claims are rejected would no longer be allowed to appeal the decision to a new appeals body within the IRB (a feature of the old Bill C-11).
Thirdly, claimants from countries on the safe country list would have to wait a full year to apply for humanitarian consideration to become permanent residents, but in the interim, they could be deported.
Fourthly, claimants from countries on the safe country list would be allowed to ask for a judicial review by the Federal Court of their claim rejection, but their deportation would not be stayed pending a decision.
"In principle I support the need to make quick decisions in regards to refugees," says Liberal immigration critic and Winnipeg North MP Kevin Lamoureux. "But I also support due process, and this bill does not allow for that. If you happen to be on the safe country list, you have 15 days to get your case ready, and if it is determined you are not a legal refugee, then you are expelled from the country within a few weeks. If you appeal to federal court, it will take 12 months to be heard, and by that time you are far gone."
In any case, says Davies, such a judicial review is not even a "real appeal," but only a review of legal and technical errors, not the overall merits of the refugee's case, and the court can only send the case back to another board member for redetermination.
One of the few things some critics praise about Bill C-31 is faster decision times for some situations, and clearing the current backlog of 42,000 refugee claims. Last year, the ministry opened a new office in Vancouver to coordinate the national backlog reduction work. (Rankin said the government is to blame for the backlog by not filling so many vacancies on the immigration boards for years.) Bill C-31 will also bring in long-planned biometric identification-such as fingerprints and photos-for people who apply for visas to visit Canada.
Some also wonder about the potential impact of Bill C-31 on foreign gays and lesbians (such as the many lesbians from Morocco that VAST has aided). For now, Canada formally agrees that gay refugees should be protected from discrimination, and gays can sponsor a same-sex spouse from abroad just as same-sex couples can. Yet Davies says that about 100 countries have some legislated discrimination against the GLBT community, which is why the concept of a "safe country" label is so dangerous. MP Lamoureux says it's too early to tell if the well-known social conservatism of Kenney (a vigorous opponent of same sex marriage) and others will have any bearing on the fate of gay refugees, and that we should not presume that it will.
Some immigration reformers say Canadians should not be naïve enough to trust that every refugee claimant tells the truth, and VAST's Thomas doesn't disagree in principle. On the prospect of people falsely claiming abuse so as to gain access to Canada, says Lamoureux, "Of course that can happen, it's a reality. So that's why we want a good processing system that can tell them apart."
For now, Bill C-31 moves onward. Everyone knows that with a parliamentary majority, the Conservatives can enact whatever they want, without the need to listen or compromise as they had to with Bill C-11 to get it passed while in their minority position two years ago.
Davies says he will introduce many amendments to the bill, and while "hope springs eternal," it will be very hard for any to pass. Yet Weston says, "I commend Mr. Kenney for his willingness to listen," adding that amendments are not impossible. "We are still looking at different perspectives from witnesses who are coming before the committee. We will consult some more, but I think most Canadians would see Bill C-31 answers their concerns. The bill was as close to a nonpartisan win as you can get."
In early March, the Tories imposed closure to limit the C-31 debate to four days, because Kenney said he wanted the law to pass by June 29. The bill has finished second reading, and is going to be discussed in committee (where there are no time limits on speaking). Then, after it passes third reading in the House, it must pass three readings in the Tory-controlled Senate to become law.
M eanwhile, the Persian New Year gathering continues in the VAST offices. While clients are deeply appreciative of the sense of safety in the office, they still cannot escape the worry of being sent home, says Vieyra. It is hard for clients to open up in counselling because only after people have their refugee claim settled can the real work begin of dealing with the deeper and older traumas of what happened abroad, she adds.
I ask Thomas what is the worst part of her job? "Seeing the abject poverty that refugees are expected to live in," she replies. "At least once a year, I see someone here in winter with flip-flops, for it's all the shoes they have. It just kills me when that happens. Also when they don't get their claim accepted and are sent home, or they just vanish and we don't know why." And the best part? "When people's claims are finally accepted," she smiles. "We always have a party for them. That's a good day."