Refugees from some of the world's most dangerous countries could soon find it more difficult to find refuge in Canada.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has put forward a proposal to eliminate one of the three classes Canada uses to resettle refugees. The source-country class allows residents of designated countries to apply directly to Canada for refugee status from inside those countries.
In its notice of the proposed change, the government says the groups most likely to be affected by the change are Colombians and Eritreans.
The refugee spaces that had been allocated to the source-country class will be reallocated to the larger convention-refugee-abroad class. In the convention class, Canada works with the United Nations human rights commissioner for refugees to resettle refugees located outside their country of origin.
Applications under the source-country class that have been approved in principle will be processed, and candidates who meet the criteria will be issued a visa. Those not already approved in principle will be reassessed under the remaining refugee resettlement classes. Unsuccessful applicants who feel they need protection will be referred to the UN human rights commissioner.
The government says the change is being proposed because the source-country class isn't "effective or efficient."
However, Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said scrapping the class instead of reforming it will close the door to people who can't easily leave their home countries to apply for refugee status and force them into the arms of human-smugglers.
"They are proposing to close one of the few options Canada has which allows people who face persecution to avoid smugglers."
The source country class, which has existed since 1997, allows prospective refugees from designated countries to apply to Canada for refugee status before they leave the country.
Currently, six countries are designated: Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Sudan, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The last time the list of designated countries was revised was 2001. While Canadian government travel warnings have since been reduced for some countries, such as Guatemala and El Salvador, the Department of Foreign Affairs still warns against any travel to Sudan and parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Colombia.
In its proposal, the government said a review of the source-country class in 2009 found it isn't effective.
"The source country class was intended to be a flexible tool for humanitarian intervention, capable of responding to a variety of populations and situations," the government wrote.
"However, the review found that the class can only be used successfully in a narrow range of humanitarian situations in a small number of countries around the world."
In some countries, the system was being swamped with applications from citizens of other countries located in the designated country.
"Direct access was granted in the six source countries to accommodate applications from source country nationals," the government explained. "However, the provision is also being used by non-nationals residing in the source countries who would normally be required to have a referral or a private sponsor, since Canada cannot restrict the application of direct access based on nationality. As a result, any foreign national living in a source country may use the direct access provision to apply for resettlement without referral."
In some countries, such as Columbia, where the average acceptance rate is 13 per cent, the Canadian embassy was swamped with thousands of applications. In Sierra Leone and Sudan, fewer than 100 applications have been submitted in each country.
Dench said part of the reason that the source-country class hasn't been working as well as it could is that the government hasn't been trying to make it work.
"We're particularly critical of the fact that the program has never really been made to work in Africa."
Dench said improvements are needed, such as not having a published list of countries. However, she said she was shocked to learn the government is proposing to scrap the source country class altogether.
"From our perspective it is a very bad idea."
Liberal immigration critic Justin Trudeau said the government's proposal makes a case for the move and he supports the idea of working with the UN human rights commissioner.
However, Trudeau said he also has concerns about the move and would like to see the House of Commons immigration committee hold hearings into the question.
"Any time we're eliminating an entire class of refugee applicants I get very wary."
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