Comments to the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration on the Proposed National Identity Card



6 November 2003

The Canadian Council for Refugees is an umbrella organization committed to the protection of refugees in Canada and around the world and to the settlement in Canada of refugees and immigrants. Our membership is made up of some 175 member organizations from across Canada.

General concerns
The CCR notes that numerous organizations have presented to the Standing Committee serious rights issues raised by the proposal of a national identity card, likely with biometric features. These concerns are shared by the CCR.

In particular, we note our concern over the threat to privacy posed by a national identity card, especially, but not only, one containing biometric data. Many refugees and immigrants are particularly sensitive to attacks of privacy because they have come from countries where privacy was systematically violated. The fact that Canadians are not required to identify themselves arbitrarily on request of the government is highly valued by many newcomers.

The CCR also emphasizes the dangers of racial profiling inherent in the introduction of a national identity card. Racialized groups in Canada, many of them refugees and immigrants, have born the overwhelming brunt of security measures, especially since September 11. While it is unclear how the national identity card would be used, it would represent an extra tool for control. Experience from other countries with such cards, such as France, shows that those who are controlled through the identity card are mostly people of colour.

In addition to endorsing the concerns over rights issues raised by other organizations, the CCR would like to highlight some specific concerns affecting refugees and immigrants.

Impact of the introduction of a card on those not entitled to it
It has not been explained who would be entitled to the national identity card. However, no matter who is entitled to the card, one can be sure that some people in Canada would not be eligible, notably refugees and immigrants with various statuses in Canada or no status at all. Once a card is introduced, it is likely that it would increasingly be required in all manner of situations, creating barriers for those who do not have the card.

We have seen this pattern before. The Social Insurance Number (SIN), introduced with a fairly narrow purpose, became, as we know, an identifying number that many government services as well as private companies started to demand from users of services. Now that Human Resources Development Canada has made it more difficult for refugee claimants to get a SIN, refugee claimants are facing problems in some parts of Canada in doing things as basic as opening a bank account or renting an apartment.

Experience with the permanent residence card, new as it is, is already pointing in the same direction. Canadian law is clear that the card is only required when permanent residents returning to Canada need to show their residence status to the carrier bringing them into Canada. However, government departments and other service providers find the card a convenient way of checking whether a client has permanent residence. CCR members are reporting that some permanent residents are already experiencing difficulty in accessing services to which they are entitled because they do not have a permanent residence card.

It is only realistic to think that a national identity card would mean increased barriers for those who do not have the card, many of whom would be immigrants and refugees. The goal of ensuring that all people are treated fairly and have access to services is promoted by giving people a variety of ways to identify themselves.

Increasing inequalities
The CCR is concerned at the tendency of biometrics to be used to increase inequalities within society. It is noticeable that biometrics serve, on the one hand, to enhance privileges of the already privileged (for example, express border crossings for businesspeople) and, on the other, as enforcement measurements against the least privileged (for example, denying asylum seekers access to refugee determination processes).

Canada needs to be strengthened through a narrowing of the inequalities between people. The Standing Committee should take into account the dangers of biometrics having the opposite effect.

Use of biometrics and basic rights
The CCR notes that the new permanent residence card is biometric-capable. The Standing Committee has heard many concerns raised about the use of biometrics in a potential national identity card. The CCR shares these concerns and believes that the use of biometrics can represent a violation of basic human rights. The Standing Committee should make a clear recommendation against the use of biometrics, both in any national identity card and in the permanent resident card. We note that in addition to the inherently problematic nature of biometrics, introducing biometrics in the permanent residence card alone would be highly discriminatory towards immigrants and refugees.

The projected costs of a national identity card are staggering. The CCR is appalled that there is serious discussion about the advisability of this project, whose goals are nebulous at best, when refugee claimants in Canada are denied the right to an appeal on the merits, a denial that is justified by reference to costs. The lack of appeal for refugee claimants clearly puts lives at risk, since a wrong refugee determination can result in a refugee being returned to persecution and even death.

Another area with an urgent need for resources is the overseas network of visa offices. The shortage of visa officers means that refugees wait years, often in extremely insecure situations, to be processed for resettlement to Canada. Family members also suffer unnecessarily long separation from family in Canada because the visa offices are under-resourced.

The CCR calls on the government to give priority to addressing these resource needs that affect the security and basic rights of refugees and immigrants.