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Miriam Llorete, a Mexican tourist, pushes her daughter as she follows her mother during a visit to Parliament Hill on July 14, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Miriam Llorete, a Mexican tourist, pushes her daughter as she follows her mother during a visit to Parliament Hill on July 14, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Minister calls for overhaul of Canada's refugee system Add to ...

Canada needs a refugee-claims system that will quickly turn away those who falsely claim persecution to take advantage of the country's generosity, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says.

Imposing visa restrictions on Czechs and Mexicans was necessary to stem a rising flow of claimants, he said, but what is really needed is an asylum system that accepts or rejects refugees quickly - and he indicated he is working on a reform proposal: "Stay tuned," he said.

The decision to introduce a visa requirement was met by howls of protest, with the Czechs recalling their ambassador in protest and Mexico also stating its unhappiness.

For Mr. Kenney, it wouldn't be necessary to impose visa restrictions to stem the flow of asylum-seekers if false claimants knew before coming that their cases would be decided swiftly and they would be returned home immediately after a decision was made.

"This does underscore the need to reform our asylum system so that it ensures that real victims of persecution get swift relief and protection in Canada, and that economic migrants seeking to abuse our generosity are shown to the door quickly," he said.

Although he would not say precisely what reforms he has in mind, the government is studying changes made by Britain in 2004.

It is considering borrowing ideas like giving immigration officers the first decision on refugee claims rather than a tribunal, reducing layers of appeals, and fast-tracking claims from countries that are generally considered safe in an effort to send home rejected claimants sooner.

Ottawa placed the restrictions on citizens of Mexico and the Czech Republic to counter a rising number of travellers who claimed refugee status in Canada rather than return home.

In the first three months of 2009, 3,648 Mexicans and 653 Czechs claimed refugee status after arriving in Canada - many of the Czechs are said to be from that country's Roma minority.

Airlines and tour operators from both countries complained that tourists scheduled to come in the next week will be stranded; Mr. Kenney argued that giving warning could have caused a "rush for the border."

The Czechs recalled their ambassador to Canada, and asked the 27-country European Union to retaliate by requiring visitors' visas from Canadians.

Mexico, though less vocal, fumed that 250,000 Mexican tourists will be inconvenienced because some have taken advantage of slow response times in Canada's decisions on who can stay as a refugee.

"When we raise with our partners in foreign countries the issue of false asylum claims, or large flows like we've seen from Mexico and Czech Republic, they turn the discussion back on us, and say, 'Your system is inviting this kind of abuse. And you need to fix your system,' " Mr. Kenney said.

He wouldn't say what he has in mind to speed up the system, but noted Britain's 2004 changes as an "interesting reference point."

Britain fast-tracked asylum claims from countries considered generally safe, to discourage false claimants from those countries by deciding their cases quickly, and sending home those rejected.

And the government here is considering borrowing other ideas, including giving immigration officers the first decision on a claim, rather than the tribunal, the Immigration and Refugee Board, that now hears the case first. Under such a reform, the IRB, or its replacement, would then hear appeals of the officer's decision.

In Britain, the government restricted the right to appeal the immigration tribunal's decision to the courts to strict questions of law - a move that, if copied here, would almost certainly raise an outcry from refugee advocates and immigration lawyers.

The IRB, staffed by political appointees and long rife with political patronage, has historically seen its decisions overturned at a high rate by the Federal Court.

Mr. Kenney declined to say if he will consider limiting appeals to the Federal Court of Canada, but said any change would have to respect "due process, natural justice, and the Charter of Rights."

He said the problem is that individuals who do not really face persecution are able to claim refugee status in Canada and stay for years while their case is heard - and even if they are rejected, sometimes win an appeal to stay on humanitarian grounds because they have a settled life here.

"It's not lost on economic migrants who want to jump the queue that we have a system that's fairly easy to abuse. And where people can settle in Canada, sometimes for several years, with a mixture of a work permit and/or social benefits, and if they're determined to, they can game our system and abuse our generosity," he said.

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