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Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Canada, said the new measure is “in line with international law”.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The head of the United Nations refugee agency in Canada says the federal government’s tougher line on asylum seekers is no cause for alarm, despite outrage from refugee advocates who are mulling legal challenges over the measures.

The proposed changes, contained in last week’s omnibus budget bill, would mean asylum seekers who have already made a refugee claim in the United States, Britain, Australia or New Zealand would be prevented from having access to a full refugee hearing by an independent tribunal.

Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Canada, said the measure is “in line with international law” because asylum seekers are still entitled to a process that considers whether they will face persecution in their home country if deported from Canada.

“The measure ... still upholds a welcoming approach,” Mr. Beuze said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Tuesday. “It’s not undermining the protection that people will receive if they arrive in Canada and want to be recognized as refugees.”

A preremoval risk assessment is conducted by the Immigration Department, while a refugee claim hearing is overseen by the Immigration and Refugee Board – an independent tribunal responsible for making decisions on asylum cases. Mr. Beuze said the preremoval risk assessment is fair for asylum seekers because, like the IRB, it considers the risk of persecution as defined in the UN Refugee Convention when making decisions on cases.

However, asylum seekers have a better chance of challenging a rejected case with the IRB than they do following a failed preremoval risk assessment. The IRB process allows for two levels of appeal but a person who is ordered deported after a preremoval risk assessment can only appeal to the Federal Court.

Mr. Beuze also emphasized the fact that the measure would only affect about 3 per cent of all refugee claimants in Canada.

Only 3,150 asylum claimants of some 105,000 asylum claimants who have arrived in Canada since April, 2017, previously made a claim in the United States, according Mathieu Genest, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office. Mr. Genest did not provide statistics for asylum seekers who had previously made a claim in Britain, New Zealand and Australia, but said the numbers are assumed to be low.

The government’s proposal comes as Ottawa continues to respond to a surge in asylum seekers. More than 40,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Canada through unofficial points of entry since U.S. President Donald Trump launched his crackdown on illegal immigration two years ago.

Most asylum seekers have been able to stay in Canada through a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires Canada and the United States to refuse entry to most asylum seekers who arrive at official ports of entry along the shared border, as both countries are considered safe for refugees. Since the agreement applies only to those who arrive at official ports of entry, asylum seekers can avoid being immediately turned away by crossing between border posts, requiring Canada to process most of their claims. Canada and the U.S. are working to update the agreement and address the loophole.

Mr. Beuze said the government’s proposed asylum changes are reasonable as it works to maintain public confidence in the immigration system.

“It’s legitimate that the government wants to reassure its population that it has a functioning asylum system. All governments would want to make sure that people trust public institutions,” Mr. Beuze said.

But the new provisions may run up against a Supreme Court ruling from 1985 that laid the foundations of refugee law in Canada. The Singh ruling found that all refugee claimants on Canadian soil are entitled to an oral hearing.

“It’s certainly going to be subject to constitutional challenge,” Sean Rehaag, who teaches at Osgoode Hall at York University of Toronto, said in an interview last week.

With a report from Bill Curry