Martin set to kill refugee 'head tax'

Sources say budget will eliminate hated $975 fee, but regular immigrants will still have to pay

Brian Laghi and Anne McIlroy

Saturday, February 19, 2000

Ottawa -- The federal government plans to remove a $975 "head tax" on refugees that has enraged immigration advocates, sources say.

The sources said the measure will be introduced in the federal budget on Feb. 28.

But while those who arrive seeking refuge from war or persecution will not have to fork over the cash when they apply to become immigrants, regular immigrants will still have to pay the price of entering Canada.

Pressure has been building on the federal government from immigrant groups and its own back bench to eliminate the $975 fee, which was established in 1995 to help pay the cost of programs designed to help resettle immigrants in Canada.

Maria Minna, now Minister of International Co-operation, was one of half a dozen back-bench Liberal MPs who presented petitions to Parliament asking that it be eliminated.

Immigration Minister Elinor Caplan has favoured phasing it out. But it could be politically difficult for the Liberals, who have strong support among immigrants, to waive the fee for refugees first. The budget has not been finalized yet.

Still, Ms. Caplan does favour full removal of the fee, which is formally known as the Right of Landing Fee.

She could not do so for this budget period because her department is pushing for extra cash to streamline the system that screens immigrants.

Ms. Caplan is also looking for funds to speed up the deportation of people under removal order.

Since February, 1995, the levy has been imposed on all adults who become permanent residents.
The government described it as a fee for the privilege of being a permanent resident of Canada, necessary to offset the costs of settlement services for newcomers.

Refugee advocates argue that because the fee is fixed, it discriminates against prospective immigrants who are poor or come from poor countries.

But they say it is a particular burden for refugees, who come to Canada not out of choice but because they have been forced to flee persecution. Refugees from Kosovo, for example, arrived this spring with all their possessions in plastic bags.

Their plight shone the spotlight on how difficult it is for people who have lost everything and want to start a new life in Canada to come up with the required cash. Since refugees often don't have the money to pay these fees, the government offers a loan program and charges interest.

Immigration experts say that since the fee was introduced in 1995, some 80,000 refugees have made Canada their new home and have contributed about $50-million in landing fees to the federal government.

They say that in 1997-98, of the $119.7-million in total revenue generated by the so-called head tax, refugees contributed $15.6-million, or 13 per cent.

Sources couldn't say how much the government would forgo by removing the fee.

Original article