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Chris Alexander, Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, welcomes 60 new citizens at a special citizenship ceremony in Toronto on Aug. 22, 2013.PETER POWER/The Globe and Mail

The number of people claiming refugee status in Canada reached what Ottawa calls a "historic low" in 2013 after it brought in changes to speed up the program by deterring applicants from safer countries.

The changes remain unpopular with refugee advocates who say valid claims are being brushed aside. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander has also lashed out at Ontario, one of many provinces continuing to provide health care for claimants who Ottawa says want to "game the system."

Waiting times to hear asylum cases plummeted in 2013, from 20 months to two, and the average time needed to deport a failed claimant is now four months, not four years, Mr. Alexander announced Wednesday. Canada has also cut its case backlog by two-thirds and deported 10,000 failed claimants in the past year. He estimated the changes have saved about $600-million, a figure his critics doubt.

"We have achieved great results in making the refugee system work for refugees and for taxpaying Canadians," he said.

Amid it all, the number of refugees turning to Canada has fallen – there were 10,000 cases in 2013, less than half what had been the norm and a key reason for the savings, estimated by the government to reach $1.6-billion over five years. Others don't see the drop as a reason to celebrate.

"From our perspective, it's a sad day when we say we've been receiving the smallest number of refugee claimants in decades. It means that fewer people have a chance at safety and security and a future," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

Canada designates 37 countries as safe places that shouldn't generate many legitimate refugee cases.

They include many in the European Union, which provided 85 per cent of Canada's refugee claims in 2011 – what Mr. Alexander called a paradox. Designated countries now include Hungary, which had been Canada's top source of refugees from 2010 to 2012, when the changes took effect. Hungary's Roma community was a major source of refugees.

The changes also blocked most health-care services for people from designated countries, except if their cases were ultimately accepted, sparking a battle with provinces. Some decided to pick up the tab themselves – including Ontario, to Mr. Alexander's dismay.

"It makes Canada, and Ontario in particular, a magnet for bogus asylum seekers. It's also unfair for taxpayers," he said, adding: "That is, in our view, scandalous. It's irresponsible. It's a bad practice because it will once again attract people who try to game the system."

Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews retorted by saying doctors were being forced to deny care to ill refugees, including pregnant women.

"I am not going to put our front-line health-care providers in the position where they have to turn away people based on arbitrary rules of the federal government," Ms. Matthews said. The province now offers limited, basic care to claimants from all countries up to their deportation date, at a cost of $20-million per year. "He is playing politics with this issue. I find that enormously offensive, and beneath him," she added of Mr. Alexander.

Ms. Dench outlines other problems with the changes. Refugee claimants have too little time to prepare for their cases to be heard, she said, particularly those suffering from trauma.

Medical groups across Canada have called on government to reinstate health funding for refugees from designated countries.

"The message is getting out that Canada is an inhospitable country to refugee claimants," said Dr. Philip Berger, a founding member of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care and medical director of the inner city health program at Toronto's St. Michael's Hospital. "This is an attack on Canada's historic ethical tradition of accepting people who were seeking safe-haven and refuge. And it's almost punishing in its consequence. It's vindictive."

Editor's note: an earlier version of this story published online and in Thursday's paper incorrectly stated Dr. Philip Berger's title. He was formerly the chief of family and community medicine at St. Michael's Hospital, but has recently become the medical director of the inner city health program.

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