Hungarian, Latvian refugee claims among those to be fast-tracked as Canada unveils ‘safe country’ list
Tobi Cohen, Postmedia News | Dec 14, 2012 11:02 AM ET | Last Updated: Dec 14, 2012 5:18 PM ET
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney unveiled on Friday Canada’s new list of “safe” countries from which refugee claims will be fast-tracked.
OTTAWA — The federal government has unveiled a preliminary list of 27 countries Canada believes are unlikely producers of legitimate asylum claimants, touching off a wave of criticism from refugee advocates who say the new rules set to take effect Saturday are arbitrary, unfair, dangerous and illegal.
“These changes are essential to protect the integrity of Canada’s immigration system and to enhance our proud tradition of refugee protection,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Friday.
“As a result of these changes, we expect the number of unfounded claimants abusing Canada’s generosity to continue to decline, meaning we can provide faster protection to real refugees and devote more resources to the resettlement of refugees waiting around the world in UN camps.”
The complete list of safe countries
• Czech Republic
• The Netherlands
• Slovak Republic
• United States of America
• United Kingdom
The list includes 25 European countries, among them the Czech Republic, which was slapped with a visa in 2009. The country has vowed not to ratify the European Union free trade deal still in the works if Canada doesn’t remove the hindrance and some critics have argued the list is more about visas and trade deals than refugees.
That said, Kenney did not immediately remove the visa requirement for the Czech Republic.
“I don’t foresee any immediate changes in visa policy,” he said. “This is not a quid pro quo, but if we can — in part through these asylum reforms — reduce the number of unfounded claims coming from particular countries then we could have greater confidence in providing those countries with visa exemptions.”
Hungary, which the government said has since become a key source for false claimants, is also on the list. Kenney has often pointed to failed Roma claimants from Hungary as a reason for the new provision already adopted by countries like the U.K., despite criticism Roma often face real persecution.
While the list also includes the United States, it does not include Mexico, saddled with a visa requirement at the same time as the Czech Republic after the number of asylum claims from the country nearly tripled between 2005 and 2009, making it the top source for claims.
During his visit to Canada last month, Mexican president Enrique PeÒa Nieto said he raised the issue of eliminating the visa with Stephen Harper and was optimistic it would be resolved.
Kenney, however, said the government is still reviewing Mexico and hinted that the volatile security situation in Mexico could impact Canada’s decision. He also noted the list is preliminary and that more countries would be added in the coming months.
“Fewer than 25 per cent of Mexican claims are accepted as well founded by our fair asylum system so on the face of it, Mexico would qualify,” he said.
“But we also like to do a country review of the broader social conditions as a fail safe before proceeding with designation so that work is ongoing for Mexico as we speak so I would just say stay tuned.”
Also on the safe list is Latvia, one of three European Union countries a Postmedia News review of 2011 asylum statistics found should not be deemed ‘safe’ according to the government’s own criteria.
Under the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act that passed in June, safe countries include those with a combined rejection/withdrawal/abandonment rate of 75 per cent or higher, or a withdrawal/abandonment rate of 60 per cent or higher for asylum claims.
For countries that produce less than 30 claims, a “qualitative checklist” that considers whether a country has an independent judicial system, recognizes basic rights and permits the existence of civil society organizations would be used.
Statistics for 2011 show one-third of the 80 claims finalized in Latvia were actually accepted as bona fide and that the country failed to meet the statistical safe country test.
Citizenship and Immigration officials, however, said the quantitative review that would trigger whether a country should be on the list will be based on a rolling 12-month scale, not necessarily the last calendar year.
Critics, including the NDP’s Jinny Sims call that arbitrary. The immigration critic argued the process is also too politicized and that designation decisions should be made by an independent panel.
Lorne Waldman of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers said Friday that the 45-day time frame for a hearing also isn’t long enough to allow claimants to find a lawyer and make their case. He agreed it’s unfair that the minister himself gets to create the list and suggested it violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it robs claimants of “procedural protections.”
Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees added in a joint statement that the list also violates the UN Refugee Convention as denying a right to appeal is an issue of access to justice. Furthermore, it doesn’t diminish the fact that some countries labelled as “safe” are in fact not for some people.
“The whole purpose of our refugee system is to protect people whose lives and liberty are threatened in their country of origin,” Canadian Council for Refugees president Loly Rico said.
“But the new system does not take their realities into account, particularly the realities of the most vulnerable, such as survivors of torture and women who have experienced sexual violence. They may end up being wrongly rejected.”
According to the new legislation, asylum claimants from listed countries will have their cases fast-tracked. While entitled to a full review within 30-45 days, they will have no right to appeal a negative decision to the new Refugee Appeal Division. They also won’t have the right to an automatic stay of removal if they choose to fight the decision in Federal Court. The aim is to deport illegitimate claimants faster.