New refugee bill raises concerns

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To the Editor:

I write to express my concern regarding the provisions in Bill C-4 regarding certain groups of people seeking refugee status in Canada.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, of which I am a member, has identified three provisions which it and I find objectionable.

One would require mandatory incarceration of groups of asylum seekers at the minister’s discretion if he/she or his/her officials suspect human smuggling or if the process of identification cannot be done in a timely manner (whatever that last phrase means).

Another provision prevents the Immigration Review Board from investigating for 12 months whether a review of the incarceration of members of such groups is warranted. That contravenes the constitutional requirement that an initial review be done within 48 hours.

Thirdly, under this bill, members of such groups whose originally questioned refugee claims are finally verified would be denied for five years the right to obtain travel documents or to apply for permanent residence.

These provisions impose restrictions that are contrary to constitutional guarantees and/or that contravene international conventions to which Canada is a signatory. But even more disturbing, in my view, is the image of our country they present to its citizens and the world.

A famous British jurist, Sir William Blackstone, once said, “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer.” That dictum is surely as valid today as it was in the 18th century. As other people have argued more recently, when we deny those we fear or suspect the legal protections that make us a free society we indirectly diminish our own freedoms.

I am not arguing that we should be unconcerned about human smuggling. That is certainly a potential threat to our security and, often as well, an act that takes advantage of those being smuggled. But let us deal with it with the legal powers that already exist, powers that are as adequate to preserve our security as other laws are adequate to prevent murder.

Another pillar of our system of justice and our freedoms is the principle that accused persons should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Let us not allow the provisions of Bill C-4 to override that precious principle.

Peter L. Hepher