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Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaks with the media following party caucus meetings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday May 9, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaks with the media following party caucus meetings on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Wednesday May 9, 2012. (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Bowing to pressure, Kenney agrees to some refugee-bill amendments Add to ...

The Conservative government proposed amendments to a controversial new refugee bill on Wednesday, but critics say they still have major concerns with the legislation.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney admitted he was prompted to introduce some changes to Bill C-31 by months of outrage from refugee advocacy groups and Opposition critics.

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“I believe it's not right for the government to take the position that the original bill is the only option possible,” he said.

“I'm open to other reasonable ideas ... and I believe the modifications are in agreement with our objectives.”

The Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act makes several reforms to the refugee system and the Conservatives say it's designed to crack down on bogus refugee claims.

Among other things, the bill would see people designated as part of a “mass arrival” detained for a year before the decision to imprison them was reviewed.

That measure is designed to address the recent arrivals of boatloads of migrants and deter future ships.

Mr. Kenney said Wednesday that provision will be changed so that a review will take place at the 14-day mark and then again six months later.

“The intention has never been to maintain refugees in detention,” he said.

“The intention is to have a greater ability to process smuggled migrants who arrive in large numbers.”

The legislation will also be changed to make clear the government won't revoke permanent residency status for refugees when the situation in their home countries improves.

The bill, as it was written, could have seen refugees who visited their now-peaceful countries of origin lose their permanent residency status in Canada.

Earlier Wednesday, the New Democrats said they wouldn't support the bill without reforms.

NDP Immigration Critic Jinny Sims said the changes will be studied at committee.

“What we have heard overwhelmingly from witnesses in the past two weeks is that this bill is fundamentally flawed,” she said in an e-mail.

“It will do nothing to prevent human smuggling, while punishing refugees.”

Mr. Kenney wants to see the new bill passed by June in order to override a refugee reform bill passed by Parliament in 2010 which would come into effect by then.

That bill, passed during the Tories' minority government, had several clauses changed as a result of negotiations with the Opposition and received all-party support.

But the new bill revokes some of those compromises.

Mr. Kenney said the government simply isn't operationally prepared to implement the earlier version of the bill.

The government should go back to that version, said Rob Shropshire of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

Still, the changes to the new bill are welcome, he said.

“While these were two of the more egregious elements of the bill around detention without review and conditional permanent residence, there are still some important concerns that remain,” he said.

Those concerns include a section which allows the minister to designate some countries as “safe” and means that people from such countries won't be able to seek refugee status.

It's still unknown which countries will be on that list, though Mr. Kenney insisted Wednesday that it won't be arbitrary.

But Mr. Shropshire said there are still issues with that list, pointing to the situation of Roma refugees from Hungary or the Czech Republic.

If those countries are placed on the list, they won't be able to claim refugee status despite the fact they face widespread persecution.

Mr. Shropshire said he isn't optimistic the government is open to further reforms but hopes the bill could receive further study in the Senate.

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