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Canada Immigration Minister Hussen axes ‘safe country’ program as new stats show asylum claims have tripled

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is doing away with a policy implemented under the Harper government that aimed to tackle a large backlog of refugee claims by limiting rights for asylum-seekers from certain “safe” countries – a policy Mr. Hussen says created inequity in Canada’s asylum system.

The policy divided refugee claimants into different categories, depending on where they were from. The Conservatives enacted it in 2012 as a way to deter “abuse” of Canada’s refugee system by people who come from countries that “do not normally produce refugees and respect human rights and offer state protection.”

Asylum-seekers from a list of 42 countries deemed safe – such as the United States and most of Europe – were put through an expedited claims process. They were subject to a six-month bar on work permits and had limited access to the federal health program for refugees. If their asylum claims were rejected, they could not appeal the decision to the refugee appeal division, as is the case for claimants from countries that aren’t on the list.

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The premise was that people from those countries were less likely to be genuine victims of persecution.

Mr. Hussen announced on Friday that Canada is removing all countries from the “designated country of origin” (DCO) list.

“The designated-country-of-origin policy not only failed to improve the efficiency of the asylum system, it compromised the principle that all people should be treated equally, regardless of nationality,” Mr. Hussen said in a statement. “The elimination of this policy is another step to restore fairness to the system to allow Canada to continue to offer protection to the world’s most vulnerable.”

(The “safe country” policy is distinct from the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States, which generally requires would-be refugees to apply in whichever of the two countries they reach first.)

Several Federal Court decisions have ruled elements of the DCO policy violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

It was implemented as part of an overhaul of the refugee system aimed at tackling serious case backlogs and long wait times. But the Immigration and Refugee Board struggled with the two-tier approach that included unworkable timelines for hearing cases, and appeals and backlogs continued to grow.

During the 2015 election campaign, the Liberals promised to eliminate the policy as part of an overhaul of the way asylum claims are handled, but it was delayed in part because government wanted to await the outcome of an independent review of the refugee system. That review was completed last year and included 64 recommendations for improvements, including eliminating legislated processing times for certain claims.

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Meanwhile, backlogs of refugee claims in Canada have continued to grow, thanks to a tripling of new claims filed over the last four years, according to Statistics Canada.

New figures released Friday show that in 2015, the year the year the Trudeau Liberals were elected, there were about 16,000 asylum seekers who made claims in Canada.

Two years later, in 2017, there were more than 50,000 claims. Last year there were 55,000 claimants, showing the pace of growth had slowed, but the total is well above the previous peak for claimants a decade earlier.

Statistics Canada data also shows that asylum-claimants tend to be younger than the general population in Canada, and most are male.

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