Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Harder times for refugees: agency chief

Says Canada less welcoming

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These days, Janet Dench feels like she's stepped back in time to when she started at the Canadian Council for Refugees.

Back then, in the 1980s, refugees were slagged as immigration "queue-jumpers" rather than people in need of protection whom Canada welcomed, said the executive director of the council that represents 170 non-government organizations.

"In some ways, things come around in a cycle," she said Wednesday. Dench was in Winnipeg to meet with the Manitoba Refugee Sponsors at their monthly meeting.

A "proud to protect refugees" campaign this year aims to switch cycles, said Dench, who is based in Montreal.

Canada's immigration policy has undergone a "massive change," she said. In 2000, for the first time, the number of temporary foreign workers -- with no status or options -- outnumbered new permanent residents in Canada, said Dench.

"Throughout our history, we expected people to come here, settle here and become part of our family." The "guest workers" as they're called in Europe, have an "enormous vulnerability."

"Without permanent resident status, they're not secure enough to make a complaint or access settlement services."

Even permanent resident status is not as permanent as it once was, said Dench. A sponsored spouse must live with his or her partner for two years or risks losing their permanent resident status.

"You could be sponsored by a spouse who walks out on you two years minus a day," and you'd be deportable, said Dench. There are supposed to be exemptions for abuse or neglect but it's up to the sponsored spouse to prove it, she said. Refugees can lose their permanent resident status if they return to the country they fled to see a sick parent or apply for a passport from that country.

Citizenship is now harder to get, said Dench.

The processing time has gone from waiting three years to five years. There are tougher new language requirements, including proof upfront the applicant has passed the language test they pay for.

"Refugees are stateless," said Dench. "When you're adrift, it's really important to become a citizen."

She said a bill now before the House of Commons would make citizenship harder to get for refugee claimants and easier for the government to take away.

A terrorism charge -- such as one Canadian Al Jazeera journalist Mohamed Fahmy now faces in Egypt -- could strip him of his citizenship even if he's convicted in an unfair process.

The government being able to strip people of their citizenship has an effect on people, said Dench. "You're always on parole or probation."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2014 A8

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