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Politics UN refugee agency braces for more Mexican asylum claims after Trump ban

UNHCR representative to Canada Jean-Nicolas Beuze pictured during an interview at his office Feb. 2, 2017 in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

The United Nations refugee agency is planning for a possible increase in Mexican asylum claims in Canada after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the construction of the Mexico border wall and a temporary ban on all refugee admissions.

The UNHCR's new representative to Canada, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, told The Globe and Mail that the multilateral body is doing everything it can to convince the United States to resume its refugee-resettlement program, which is the largest in the world.

"We are very concerned by the discriminatory aspect of the decision which has been taken by singling out a specific group," Mr. Beuze said.

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"We are working very closely with the U.S. administration to see what can be done to resume the long tradition of the U.S."

Last week, Mr. Trump signed a number of anti-immigration executive orders, including a 120-day ban on all refugee admissions, a 90-day ban on the entry of people from seven Muslim-majority countries and the construction of a long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border – a pledge that Mr. Trump made when he announced his candidacy for the presidency in June, 2015.

Experts say Canada could see an increase in the number of Mexican immigrants and refugees as a result of Mr. Trump's directives and a recent Canadian policy change.

In December, the Liberal government lifted a visa requirement for Mexican travellers that had been in place since 2009 when the Conservatives imposed it after a rise in invalid refugee claims from Mexico.

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Mr. Beuze said that while it's hard to predict the implications of Mr. Trump's plans, one thing is clear: Mexican asylum seekers will continue to flee instability in their home country, with their sights potentially set on Canada as the United States closes its doors to refugees.

"Whether they will move from the U.S. to Canada or … straight from Mexico to Canada, that remains to be seen," he said.

"I think we are all aware of this potential and, I'm sure like everyone, we are planning for that, looking at the different options to see whether we will need to beef up services upon arrival of such kind of claimants."

Mr. Beuze took up his new post as the UNHCR's envoy to Canada in mid-January after serving as the agency's deputy representative for protection in Lebanon. He arrives at a challenging time when the world faces an unprecedented global refugee crisis that has displaced more than 65 million people. Heightening this is the American crackdown on immigration as well as resistance to refugees in parts of Europe.

The New Democrats have called on the Liberal government to denounce Mr. Trump's "racist" executive orders.

After the U.S. refugee ban was announced, Mr. Trudeau used his Twitter account to say: "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith."

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But cabinet ministers have not publicly condemned Mr. Trump's order.

Although Mr. Beuze was careful not to judge Ottawa's response, he said it's best to engage in a concerted manner with the Trump administration, as the UN has been doing.

"It's always more important to engage positively with your counterpart when you disagree on an issue and see how you can work with them to resolve this issue, especially when you share such a long border, when you have so many interests … and when you share the same values."

Despite Mr. Trump's refugee ban, the Canadian government says it will not take in additional refugees this year. Mr. Beuze refused to say whether he thinks Canada should increase its refugee intake, but he did warn that if it plans to do so, it's not as simple as announcing a resettlement target and buying those individuals plane tickets to Canada. He emphasized the need to ensure services are in place to successfully resettle refugees, including affordable housing, medical care and language training.

As the UNHCR works to convince the United States to resume its refugee-resettlement program, Mr. Beuze said his colleagues in Africa, the Middle East and Asia are reporting growing anxiety among refugees who had plans of resettling in the United States.

"We are hearing that our colleagues have to break the news to some who were supposed to be departing very soon," he said. "We have heard quite compelling stories from UNHCR colleagues about families breaking into tears."

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