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pacific alliance

In Cali, Colombia, next week, Stephen Harper will ponder a choice driven by the forces of globalization. Trade talks are increasingly applying pressure on Canada to lower restrictions on foreigners entering the country, and in turn, squeezing the refugee-protection system.

Mr. Harper will travel to Colombia to meet the leaders of a new trade bloc, the Pacific Alliance, to consider whether Canada should join. The alliance might be the next big thing in Pacific Rim trade, quickly reducing barriers between emerging Latin American nations and then with Asia.

But the biggest obstacle for Canada isn't reducing barriers on goods crossing the border, it's lowering restrictions on people.

The members of the Pacific Alliance – Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru – have dropped visa requirements so their citizens can travel freely within the bloc without forms and fees. They'd expect Canada to do the same if it joins, letting their citizens visit without getting a visa in advance. They find Canada's visa-application process onerous, and say it rejects too many tourists and business people.

But for Canada, it's not a straightforward decision on paperwork. Ottawa imposes visas on some countries so they can screen out people who might claim refugee status here. The pressure to lift them forces choices about the asylum system.

Ottawa is already feeling those pressures in trade negotiations with the European Union and relations with Mexico, and it has changed the refugee system for their citizens. The draw of the Pacific Alliance is that it seems to be ambitious and fast-moving. Canada is already part of another, bigger negotiation of 16 countries to create a bloc called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But some think those talks are so cumbersome they'll take many years, if they ever reach a deal.

The Pacific Alliance represents about a third of Latin America's economy; Costa Rica wants to join, and others are considering it. It intends to focus on Asia, eyeing trade agreements with partners like ASEAN, the 10-nation bloc in Southeast Asia.

Canada is already an observer in the Pacific Alliance . Canadian negotiators attended high-level talks in Chile last week and, according to sources, have asked a series of questions about the conditions to join. Canada already has free-trade agreements with all member countries, so in theory, it's on the road to the bloc's goal of eliminating tariffs.

But visas are a tricky hurdle. Lifting them immediately would raise concerns about a flow of refugee claimants from Colombia or Peru.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is already trying to speed up the refugee system by fast-tracking asylum-seekers from countries deemed safe. They get a quick decision by a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board and fewer appeals. Mr. Kenney argues that will discourage "bogus" refugee claimants from those countries . Immigration Department officials say in the first three months of this year, asylum claims were down by 70 per cent.

In theory, that will streamline the system and means Ottawa can soon remove visa restrictions on citizens of countries on that "safe" list. The list includes mostly Western countries, the U.S. and Europe. The latter is important for an EU-Canada free trade agreement, because EU countries like the Czech Republic, which face Canadian visa requirements, won't ratify the deal until Ottawa lifts them.

But Ottawa also put Mexico on the list of supposedly safe countries – even though Canada accepted 569 Mexican refugees last year – as a step toward lifting visa requirements on Mexicans that have been a major irritant in relations. Refugee advocates say protections were sacrificed for Canada's trade interests. Adding Colombia or Peru to the list would amplify the charge.

Mr. Harper might be able to offer a middle option: promising to lift the visas years down the road, while taking steps now to streamline applications for citizens of Pacific Alliance countries. That relies on faith that Mr. Kenney's reforms will succeed, or that Colombia and Peru will one day be solidly safe. In the meantime, Canada faces choices about how trade interests affect who it lets in.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story that appeared online and in Thursday's newspaper incorrectly said asylum seekers from countries deemed safe get a quick decision by an immigration officer. In fact, the expedited decisions on those individuals are made by a member of the Immigration and Refugee Board, not an immigration officer.

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