Tories Look To Fast-Track Refugee Claims

Tories look to fast-track refugee claims
Key Liberals willing to work with Conservatives on reforms to system, to be tabled in the fall

Campbell Clark
The Globe and Mail
Last updated on Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009 02:43AM EDT

The Harper government's refugee-system reforms to be tabled early this fall will include measures to fast-track claims from countries generally considered safe.

The Conservatives say they will seek opposition co-operation to pass the changes, and behind the scenes, some key Liberal MPs said they are willing to work with the government on reforms.

That opens the prospect that reforms to accelerate claims could be passed by the minority Parliament. In the past, reforms were considered by successive Liberal and Conservative governments but abandoned for fear opponents would argue real refugees might be denied due process.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in Mexico for the North American Leaders' Summit, on Sunday blamed the imposition of visitors visas on Mexicans on Canada's failure to discourage bogus refugee claims, and said he will ask Parliament to change the system.

As the Three Amigos summit wrapped up Monday, Mexican President Felipe Calderon spoke bluntly about Ottawa's decision to slap travel restrictions on Mexicans trying to enter Canada, saying the measure is bad for the two-way relationship.

Mexico, certainly, feels very bad about this decision, about this rejection, even though, of course, it is a privilege of the Canadian government to stipulate this. But it certainly gets in the way of a good relationship, of what Prime Minister Harper and I are doing to have good relations between our two countries.

In London, Ont., Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff responded to Mr. Harper's move to blame the visas on Canada's refugee system by saying the Prime Minister is making excuses.

If the problem here is refugee claimants coming from Mexico, then the solution is to fix the refugee problem, and the government has done nothing about the refugee problem for three and a half years, he said.

However, government sources said the government expects to table a reform package early this fall that would see claims from those who come from countries that are generally considered safe fast-tracked.

The planned reforms would see immigration officers, rather than the Immigration and Refugee Board, hear the claims and issue a decision, in a bid to speed the process. A revamped version of the IRB's refugee section would then handle appeals, but in some cases, without a new hearing.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney would not say in an interview what the reform package will include, but he called the idea of fast-tracking claims from generally safe countries, as the British do, one dominant idea that has been proposed that I think is worth consideration.

He has already spoken to immigration critics from all parties, and believes there is hope of some opposition support, Mr. Kenney said. I think there is more consensus there than one might expect.

The Liberal caucus includes MPs with widely differing views on the issue, however, and some fear the Conservatives plan to play hardball politics and make refugee-system reform a wedge issue that would differentiate the parties in an election campaign.

Look, if there was an interest in making this a wedge issue, I'm sure it would have made it into a previous [election] platform, Mr. Kenney said. The reality is there's been, for good reason, a great deal of caution from successive governments about this issue.

He said the imposition of visas on Mexicans and Czechs, aimed at stemming a rise in refugee claims from those countries, shows we need other options.

The government considers most of those claimants economic migrants because only a small portion 11 per cent of Mexican claimants in 2008 succeed. Mr. Kenney said they come to Canada because they know they can game the system and stay here for years even if their claim is unfounded.

Liberal immigration critic Maurizio Bevilacqua said he will wait to see the reform package before commenting, but said he would welcome a system that still gives claimants full due process but a system that does not take years upon years to resolve itself.

With a report from Steven Chase in Guadalajara, Mexico