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Immigration Minister Jason Kenny announces an legislation to speed up refugee claims at an Ottawa news conference on March 30, 2010.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenny announces an legislation to speed up refugee claims at an Ottawa news conference on March 30, 2010.

List of 'safe countries' among refugee proposals Add to ...

Streamlined rules for handling refugee seekers arriving on Canada's doorstep would see bogus claimants ushered out of the country in a fraction of the time it takes under the current system.

But the new regime proposed by the federal Conservative government on Tuesday would divide prospective refugees into two classes - those from countries deemed to be safe and those that are not. Claimants from the "safe countries" would not be permitted to take advantage of a new appeals process.

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The list of safe countries of origin is designed to prevent spikes in claims from states such as Mexico and Hungary with democratically elected governments that generally adhere to international treaties on human rights.

But it opens diplomatically sensitive questions about which countries will be on the list and whether those people who genuinely fear for their lives in "safe states" will be able to get a fair hearing for their chance to stay in Canada.

Peter Showler, a former chairman of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada who teaches immigration and refugee law at the University of Ottawa, said members of the board will be pleased with some aspects of the new legislation - particularly the fact that the first decisions about a refugee's claim would be made by board employees.

But, he said, the effectiveness of the proposed list of safe countries comes down to which countries are included.

"The fear everyone has is that they are going to put countries on that list that naturally are unsafe. And let's talk about the classic one - Mexico," Mr. Showler said. "The fact is that Mexico is not a safe country."

The government says a panel of public servants will provide advice about the composition of the list, but the final authority to designate a safe country of origin would rest with the minister of immigration.

Immigration officials would not speculate Tuesday about which countries would qualify. But Immigration Minister Jason Kenney hinted that those within the European Union and in Central America are likely candidates.

The list is "an additional tool to deal with what we often face, which are large spikes of claims that typically are very well organized and typically come from democratic countries," he explained. "In 2004 it was Costa Rica [with]2,000 claims, 99 per cent of which were rejected by the IRB. In 2006 and last summer, we saw a similar process coming from Mexico, and today we have a similar pattern developing from an EU member state [Hungary]"

Canada was forced to impose visa restrictions on Mexico and the Czech Republic to deal with the flood of questionable refugee seekers from those countries.

"Without this tool, we only have one tool left in the toolbox and that's the imposition of visas," Mr. Kenney said. "We faced a lot of criticism for the diplomatic and commercial consequences of visa impositions."

Abraham Abraham, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Canada, was with Mr. Kenney on Monday when the minister announced that the number of refugees accepted into this country from UN-sponsored camps would be increased by 2,500.

But he was unwilling to make a pronouncement Tuesday on this portion of the government's proposed reforms. "Until we've talked to the government, we cannot provide any comment," a UNHCR spokeswoman added.

Francisco Barrio, the Mexican ambassador to Canada, said the Canadian government has given no assurances that his country would be on the list. But he expressed enthusiasm for the new refugee proposals.

"We are very glad to hear that finally the initiative has been taken because we really believe that the measure to impose visas on Mexican visitors was the result of the problem that the refugee system has been showing for several years, especially the long, long, long time it takes to have a final definition of a person applying for the status of refugee," Mr. Barrio said.

Mexican officials said even if the proposed legislation becomes law they will continue to take action against criminal groups that try to persuade Mexicans to enter Canada illegally.

 

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