The battle lines in the current fight are not about leading the world, but about following it to a worse future for refugees.

We must let go of the idea that Canada’s refugee system is better, fairer, more generous or more humanitarian than other systems in the world.

It is easy to dismiss the current debate about changes to Canada’s refugee process as the same-old stand-off between the soft liberal left and a strong reformist government. But the tenor of the recent changes has irrevocably altered the terrain. The changes which took effect in December put the finishing touches on a round of reform that has brought a dramatic end to what was once known as Canada’s humanitarian tradition. Whether Canadians like the new system or loathe it, it is important to acknowledge that it is a game changer.

Taking into account the results of appeals, acceptance rates for those who come to Canada seeking protection as refugees have recently been broadly similar to acceptance rates in other liberal democracies. Canada’s system has fewer avenues of appeal than the United Kingdom, longer time frames for detention than Australia, and the same access to health care as the United States. In terms of direct resettlement from overseas, Canada brings in fewer refugees per capita than Australia.

Twelve years ago, the Canadian refugee system was the fairest in the world because each individual claim was assessed by two people. This outweighed the then-absence of any formal appeal. This vital centerpiece of fairness is long gone, but the further erosion of Canada’s commitment to refugees has accelerated rapidly over the past two years.

In assessing the most recent round of reforms, Jeffrey Simpson singled out two features: faster time lines and the so-called ‘safe country’ list. There is some chance that each of these will speed up the system, but no chance they will improve it.

Those seeking protection must now complete their initial paperwork within 15 days. This will not be possible. Forms will be incomplete and inaccurate. Vital supporting material will be unavailable. Decision makers will have to rely on less information than ever before. This will lead to more mistakes. In the refugee decision making, errors cost lives.

The safe country list has a certain appeal at first glance. It is absolutely true that there are many countries in the world that are generally safe and have good records at protecting human rights. But an approach that strips away fundamental rights on a categoric basis is draconian. Far better would be strategic, and timely, review of applications by knowledgeable decision makers.

Where Canada truly does lead the world is in delay. The biggest single factor creating the unconscionable delays in the refugee system is the lack of resources. An enormous backlog has developed over the past five years, and during much of that time the government had simply not appointed enough decision makers to the Immigration and Refugee Board. The most recent reform is unlikely to achieve its objectives because the budget of the board has not increased, nor has legal aid. Instead, the government is expecting faster results from a system that now involves more steps and fewer resources.

Delay does not serve the interests of refugees seeking to remake their lives and reunite their families. It does not serve the interests of anyone who cares about the integrity of the system. There are ways to make refugee decision making both faster and fairer, but none of these options are currently on the table.

Finally, refugee lawyers are part of the solution, not part of the problem. Timely, high quality legal help assists decision makers enormously and reduces appeal pressures. The increasing squeeze to limit access to legal assistance at the front end of the process will open the way for increased roles for lawyers after the slew of indefensible decisions that will come from these changes.

All Canadians must now understand that our humanitarian tradition and our openness towards refugees are historic artifacts. The battle lines in the current fight are not about leading the world, but about following it to a worse future for refugees.

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