Kenney's Refugee Bill Could Deport Young, Mentally Ill

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JASON KENNEY
Professionals who work with immigrants and refugees are raising concerns that new federal legislation unfairly punishes the young and the mentally ill. | PC

Professionals who work with immigrants and refugees are raising concerns that new federal legislation unfairly punishes the young and the mentally ill.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney introduced a bill on June 20 that allows the government to deport non-citizens who are convicted of serious crimes carrying a sentence of six months or longer, with no right of appeal.

Currently, there is no right to appeal deportations for anyone sentenced to two years or more. Kenney has said the tougher rules are necessary to protect Canadians against foreign criminals.

The head of the Canadian Somali Congress, Ahmed Hussen, believes the new bill will drastically increase the number of young immigrant males who are deported without appeal, including Somali refugees raised mainly in Canada, who have little or no connection to the land of their birth.

"The net will be cast wider and it will capture even more people," Hussen says.

One big mistake on the part of these young men could see them sent to a dangerous place they know nothing about, he says.

"For the people that are likely to be captured by this new law, we feel that a good number of them are first-time offenders who, if given a chance, would most likely reform and change their behaviour," he says.

Michael Bossin, a refugee lawyer in Ottawa, says that in his experience, these young offenders "learn their lesson when they're in jail. They get a job, they get responsibility, they get a family... They are no longer a danger to the public."

Bossin says that when a deportation is stayed, it works like a probation for young immigrants and often spurs them to change their ways. In his view, the changes could see Canada exporting its social problems abroad, without addressing the root causes of their crimes.

Alexis Pavlich, a spokesperson for the immigration minister, told CBC News in a statement that "several foreign criminals have gone on to commit more serious crimes while they used the generous avenue for appeal, including, in one instance, killing a police officer."

"It is easy for non-citizens to avoid deportation: do not commit serious crimes," Pavlich wrote.

Mental health concerns

Jean Lash, an immigration and refugee lawyer with South Ottawa Community Legal Services, says the changes will affect many people who suffer from psychiatric problems.

"We see a lot of people with mental illnesses who are criminalized. And I think it's well known there are many people with mental illnesses in the criminal justice system," she says.

Kenney's new bill would remove any discretion for a judge to consider the nature of the crime and the context in which it was committed, including potential mental illness in refugees from war-torn countries.

"Those people in many cases commit crimes when they're not being treated," says Bossin.

"They commit a crime that gets them into a system that gets them treatment, and they get their medication. They get in a program, they have family support, they have community support, they are in no way by the wildest imagination any threat to anyone any more," he says.

Bossin believes the mentally ill will face undue hardship if they're deported to countries where mental illness is often stigmatized and punished.

Earlier this week, a commentary published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal said the government's omnibus refugee legislation, which became law on June 28, could also have a negative impact on the mental health of refugees.

New provisions allow the minister to detain any arrivals over the age of 16 designated as "irregular arrivals," even when it means separating refugee children from their families.

Medical professionals are concerned about the higher levels of psychiatric symptoms found in detained refugee claimants, and the potential long-term effects of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders exacerbated by the detention period.

Other changes that took effect June 30 removed the supplementary health care benefits previously available to refugees when they arrived in Canada.

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