Canada has a long-standing and well-deserved reputation as a place of refuge for people fleeing persecution in their homelands.
At the same time, however, it has also gained repute as an easy mark for the unscrupulous who fraudulently use our generous refugeedetermination system as a way to get into Canada without submitting to standard immigration requirements and procedures.
Last week the federal government introduced what it calls the Protecting Canada's Immigration Act, legislation intended to make it more difficult for what Immigration Minister Jason Kenney calls "bogus" refugee claimants to game the system, and to streamline the existing cumbersome screening process.
The bill aims to dissuade refugee claimants coming from what the government classifies as "safe" countries - notably European Union member states, from which there has lately been an uptick in refugee claimants. Safe countries, by the government's definition, are ones with democratic political systems, solid human-rights records and independent judiciaries.
The processing of refugee claimants from countries designated as safe would be fasttracked - completed within 45 days as opposed to the 1,000 days it currently takes. Failed claimants from these countries would be immediately deported without recourse to appeal.
The legislation also proposes harsher penalties for those who engage in human smuggling, as well as for asylum-seekers who pay smuggling syndicates to get them to Canadian shores. And it allows for the collection of biometric data - fingerprints and digital photos - of people entering Canada on a visitor visa, a work permit or a study visa.
Both of these measures are advisable. Human smuggling is an odious enterprise that should be severely punished. And while the smugglers' clients are perhaps desperate people in many cases, they are nevertheless participants in an illegal activity that should be strongly discouraged.
The collection of biometric information is a sensible security precaution that will be a valuable tool in preventing people from slipping into the country with false identities.
However, refugee advocates have a point in their complaints that the legislation is too harsh in the removal of appeal provisions for persons from designated safe countries seeking refugee status.
The measure was invoked in large part due to a flood of applicants of Roma origin from eastern European countries, notably Hungary. And while Hungary and others, such as Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech and Slovak republics, would qualify as safe under the proposed criteria, all of them have a history of discrimination against and persecution of their Roma populations.
As such, closer examination of their cases than the legislation allows might show some of these to be legitimate claimants.
Also, the new bill would eliminate a provision in previous refugee legislation that called for a committee of experts to decide which countries should be designated as safe. This should be restored. It is preferable to leaving it up to the government - any government - to decide, a process in which humanitarian considerations could be overridden by political considerations.
Shielding the refugee system from false claimants is not only in the best interest of Canadians, on whom they are a financial burden, but also of legitimate applicants who stand to lose out if bogus claimants cast the system as a whole into disrepute.
Establishing a system that is both efficient and fairly balanced is a daunting challenge, but it is one that should be tackled realistically and at the same time in a spirit of generosity that should stand as a Canadian hallmark.
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