Since refugees are commanding so much attention these days, it’s appropriate that Canada celebrates Refugee Rights Day annually on April 4. It marks the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s far-reaching 1985 Singh decision.
This landmark decision takes its name from Harbhajan Singh, an Indian, who, along with six other appellants, was refused refugee status by the Minister of Employment and Immigration and the Immigration Appeal Board, which, under the old refugee determination system, used to hear re-determination refugee claims that the minister had concluded were invalid. When the Federal Court of Canada dismissed their applications to have a judicial review of the board’s decision, the seven appellants appealed to the Supreme Court.
In their ruling, three of the Supreme Court justices declared that the applicants should be allowed the review they wanted on the basis of the Bill of Rights. The other three judges who participated in the judgment ruled that the appeals should be allowed on the basis of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. However, all justices agreed that fundamental justice requires that a refugee claimant’s credibility be determined by a full oral hearing before the Immigration Appeal Board (now the Immigration and Refugee Board).
Not surprisingly, this decision has had profound implications for the refugee determination system because it means that refugee claimants in Canada must be guaranteed virtually the same social and legal protections accorded Canadians under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Ideally, claimants should be provided with all these procedural guarantees. However, administratively, these guarantees rule out expeditious hearings, add considerably to the costs of processing refugee claims, and encourage delays. In short, they promote a clogged refugee system.
Should the script be rewritten? In the interests of an efficient, smoothly operating refugee determination system, should individuals claiming refugee status still be granted the right to a hearing that they attend in person? As the world’s refugee crisis deepens, these questions only become more pressing.
To learn more about the Singh decision and Canada’s refugee determination system, I invite you to read to read my book, “Strangers AT Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2015, 4th edition.