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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

When it comes to refugee claims, it's pretty easy to ID the 'safe' countries Add to ...

Here's a skill-testing question: What country is the leading source for refugee claims in Canada? Is it Sri Lanka? Somalia? Haiti?

The correct answer is Hungary, a democratic member of the European Union generally deemed to comply with human-rights norms. In the past year, more than 2,500 Hungarian asylum seekers have sought protection in Canada.

Has there been a sudden outbreak of human-rights abuse in Hungary? Well, yes, in a way. Scam artists tell their victims how easy it is to get refugee status in Canada, then sell tickets to them. They coach them on how to lie to the authorities. Once in Canada, police say, many of these people fall under the control of criminal gangs, who force them to work for free and help them apply for welfare. The welfare money goes to the gangs. Of the 2,500 claimants from Hungary, only three have been declared in need of protection.

Our broken refugee system is not new news. Criminals and phony refugees who simply want to jump the queue have been gaming Canada for decades. Successive waves of bogus claimants have come from such unlikely hellholes as Portugal, Chile (post-Pinochet), Costa Rica and Mexico. Fifty-eight per cent of all asylum claims are eventually ruled invalid. But, until now, claimants knew that, no matter the outcome, they'd be allowed to stay for years.

With luck, the new package of refugee reforms announced this week will speed up the system and vastly reduce the incentives for cheating. So what's not to like? Well, there's always something. The new system will divide claimants into two groups - those from countries deemed "safe," and all the rest. Claimants from "safe" countries will be put on a fast track designed to weed out the phonies. Every other Western nation has a "safe countries" list, some long, some short. But critics argue that Canada should not.

"Refugee determination should be done on the individual facts of the case, not the country of origin," says Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Amnesty International's Gloria Nafziger says, "We have never tried to rank countries by the depth of their human-rights abuses." The NDP's Olivia Chow says, "Prioritizing some countries over others is dangerous. Every person that faces persecution should be treated equally, no matter which country they come from."

They argue that the "safe countries" list gives the government too much power and that the government probably will abuse that power. The government says even claimants from those countries will get a fair (albeit expedited) hearing.

For most of us, it's pretty easy to tell the most and least "safe" countries. Switzerland and Sweden are safe. Somalia is not. And most of us believe that a displaced family from Somalia has a far better claim on our compassion than a German family claiming persecution because they prefer to home-school their children. Mexico? A hard call these days. The United States? Of course it's safe, although those who believe U.S. military deserters should get refugee status certainly don't think so.

The Europeans think the arguments against having a "safe countries" list are simply silly. And they can't understand why Canada has allowed itself to be such a mark for so long. (The short answer is a terrible Supreme Court decision made back in 1985.) Even with the new reforms in place, Canada will still treat its refugees and refugee claimants exceptionally well. From the moment they arrive, they're entitled to work permits, welfare, free health care, and schooling for their kids. Even better, genuine refugees in need of protection will no longer have to wait 19 months to get a hearing.

We have every right to be proud of our fairness and generosity to refugees. We accept more refugees than almost any other nation in the world, and we treat them well. The usual suspects in the immigration and human-rights industry would have you think otherwise. Don't believe them.

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