Ottawa to unveil proposals to reform refugee system

By Norma Greenaway, Canwest News ServiceMarch 28, 2010

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OTTAWA — Immigration Minister Jason Kenney will unveil long-awaited proposals to reform Canada’s refugee system this week in what he has portrayed as a serious bid to speed the approval process for legitimate asylum-seekers while clamping down on abuse of the system.

Kenney plans a two-day roll out of the proposed initiatives, beginning Monday at a news conference at the Catholic Immigration Centre in Ottawa. On Tuesday, he is expected to introduce the legislative package to implement the changes, his office said Sunday.

Among other things, the package is expected to speed the initial handling of refugee applications by using trained federal civil servants to do the initial assessment, as opposed to the current system where applications are heard by a one-man refugee board. It would be part of a new system to fast-track applications from a list of so-called “safe” countries where human and democratic rights are deemed to be honoured.

Officials say the new system would still provide asylum from such “safe” countries to citizens who can demonstrate they are persecuted. They say the government has taken into account that women, gays and lesbians and other minorities can face persecution even in democracies.

The “safe” country idea is among the most controversial of the measures that will likely be proposed this week. The Liberals have indicated they are open to the idea, but the New Democrats and Bloc Quebecois are opposed.

The reform package is likely to generate fierce debate in the minority Parliament and across the country, with several refugee organizations vowing to dig in to keep the system as open and fair as possible. One of the big questions hanging over Kenney’s head is how much money the government is willing to earmark for the changes, including a stepped up effort by the Canada Border Services Agency to make sure rejected claimants are removed quickly from Canada.

Kenney has said the government is determined to come up with a system that will speed the 18 to 20 months it now takes for asylum claims to be heard, thereby reducing the 60,000 backlog in claimants still waiting to get their day before the Immigration and Refugee Board. The legislation will still allow claimants to resort to the courts if the board rejects their claim, but it is expected to reduce some of the appeals avenues.

The legislation caps a months long campaign by Kenney to persuade Canadians the system is broken, and overly generous to “bogus” claimants, as he puts it. Canada accepts about 40 per cent of all claims, a higher percentage than many other industrialized countries.

Kenney brought attention to what he called a major flaw in the system when he decided last summer to force visitors from Mexico and the Czech Republic to obtain visitors visas before entering the country after there was a sharp spike in refugee applications from Mexicans and Czech citizens as soon as they landed in Canada. He has warned the numbers coming in from Hungary also are unacceptably high, but so far has refrained from requiring visitors to have visas before arriving.

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