Ottawa Nears Clampdown On Hungarian Refugee Claimants

Ottawa nears clamp-down on Hungarian refugee claimants

By Heather Scoffield (CP)
January 8, 2010

OTTAWA—-Ottawa is seriously considering imposing visa requirements on visitors from Hungary to cut off a growing flood of refugee applicants, mainly from the Roma community, The Canadian Press has learned.

It would be the third such move in less than a year, after Canada imposed visas on visitors from Mexico and the Czech Republic last summer.

And it would risk provoking retaliation not just from Hungary, but also the much larger and more powerful European Union, which has already protested the clamp-down on Czech travellers.

The number of refugee claims from Hungary has soared since last spring, according to data collected by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

That's despite months of attempts by Hungarian and Canadian officials to find other ways to better manage the influx.

Numbers began to rise after Canada lifted visa requirements in the spring of 2008, when Hungary joined the European Union. Since the spring of 2009, however, the steady increase turned into a flood.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney visited Budapest last June, and urged his Hungarian counterparts to take steps.

“He raised Canada's concerns about the growing number of asylum seekers going to Canada,” said Kenney's spokesman, Alykhan Velshi.

He said Ottawa has no plans to impose visas right now. But he added that efforts to collaborate had not produced concrete results.

“Thus far, unfortunately, the number has gone up.”

Now, the Eastern European country is among the top three sources of refugee claimants. The number of claims made every month was usually between 20 and 40 right after the visa requirement was lifted in the spring of 2008. By the fall of 2009, the monthly total was around 200.

While numbers for the last three months of the year have not yet been made public, they are expected to show another sharp increase.

At the same time, the board's approvals of the claims have plunged to zero, with many of the claimants withdrawing or abandoning their claims as they come up for processing.

There are a number of explanations for the spike, Velshi said: a growing willingness to abuse Canada's visitors' process, an increase in human trafficking, or an increase in unscrupulous immigration consultants.

“All of these problems, it's the responsibility of the Hungarian government to look into,” Velshi said.

That's not the way Hungary sees it. The Hungarian government allows its citizens to move about freely, said Imre Halyes, head of consular affairs at the Hungarian embassy in Ottawa.

If Canada's refugee system has loopholes that invite abuse, then it's up to Ottawa to fix the system, he said.

“It would definitely deal with many of the problems that are becoming evident in the refugee system,” he said, adding that the situation is “delicate.”

“There are many aspects of this situation. There are push and pull factors.”

Indeed, the federal Conservatives have said openly they believe the refugee system in Canada is broken, and they're worried about the mounting backlog of claims. As of last September it was at a record high of 62,084.

Kenney has been talking about a legislative package that would streamline the system and close some loopholes. But that package has been repeatedly delayed, and is now on the back burner because Parliament has been prorogued.

By imposing visa requirements, travellers to Canada would have to show a Canadian visa officer in Hungary that their trips to Canada would be temporary. They'd also have to convince the officer that they will not overstay their approved time in Canada, show they are in good health, don't have a criminal record, and are not a security risk.

While the imposition of a visa is considered a last resort in the politics of immigration, Kenney has said he is pleased with the results from Mexico and the Czech Republic.

Not only has the visa process stemmed the tide of refugee claimants from those countries, but it has also saved Canadian taxpayers plenty of money on social services that Ottawa and the provinces would have had to provide, he has said.

But a spokesman for the Roma community in Toronto says Canada should not consider the Hungarian refugee claims to be baseless.

Rather, Roma are fleeing a “pretty disgusting fascist revival” in Hungary. The numbers are on the rise because people are only beginning to discover how to best apply for asylum in Canada, said Paul St. Clair, executive director of the Roman Community Centre.

He said he doubts that Canada would go as far as to impose a visa and risk retaliation from the European Union. But such threats could well serve as a deterrent.

“These Hungarians are coming,” St. Clair said. “They (the Canadian government) are probably looking for some way of managing it.”

Number of Hungarian refugee claims referred to the IRB's Protection Division:

January 2008: 1

February 2008: 1

March 2008: 9

April 2008: 21

May 2008: 28

June 2008: 15

July 2008: 27

August 2008: 18

September 2008: 20

October 2008: 41

November 2008: 68

December 2008: 36

January 2009: 58

February 2009: 33

March 2009: 71

April 2009: 163

May 2009: 179

June 2009: 226

July 2009: 169

August 2009: 199

September 2009: 215

(Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada)