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Fast-track list for refugee claims out

Applicants from these countries won't get fair shake, critics charge

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OTTAWA -- Having dispensed with Canada's first list of countries from which refugee claims will be fast-tracked, immigration officials must now wrestle with the next one.

In some ways, it will likely be a much more difficult list to compile.

The first batch of the so-called "designated countries of origin" list, unveiled Friday, includes 25 European Union member states, the United States and Croatia.

They are all countries the government has declared generally safe and therefore unlikely to produce real refugee claimants.

People from those countries will now have their refugee claims expedited and lose some avenues of appeal if they are rejected, including the ability to ask for a stay of deportation pending a Federal Court hearing.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney stressed that the merits of claims from the designated countries will be assessed the same as others.

"The designation of a country does not mean that that particular country is completely devoid of problems, of discrimination, or even of violence. There is crime in Canada, people who sometimes face discrimination here," Kenney said.

"The standard is not perfection. The standard is not that it's impossible for anyone to be a victim of violent crime. The standard is whether or not the country is known normally to produce refugees."

But critics denounce the changes as discriminatory and unconstitutional.

"The fact that you are now identified as having come from a country that's presumed safe, there's already a bias against the legitimacy of your claim," said Gloria Nafziger, the refugee co-ordinator for Amnesty International.

"And while you do get your claim assessed, you get it assessed in half the time that anybody else would have theirs."

The list was drawn up by first examining which countries produce the highest rates of failed claimants -- claims that are abandoned, withdrawn or rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Countries with a failure rate of 75 per cent or better are candidates for the list.

In Hungary's case, for example, 93 per cent of the 3,249 claims finalized in the first nine months of this year were rejected. Croatia saw 92 per cent of claims rejected, the Slovak Republic 98 per cent. All three are on the list.

In addition to the numbers, the government also looks at whether the countries have an independent judiciary, civil-society organizations and recognition of basic democratic rights and freedoms.

Earlier this year, Kenney travelled to Hungary and spoke out on the issue of persecution of Roma and Jewish communities there.

At a later news conference in Ottawa, he referred to certain elements of Hungarian leadership as "crazy and hateful xenophobic nutbars."

But he said Friday that doesn't preclude Hungary from being included on the list.

"The designation of a country of origin in our asylum system doesn't offer a country bragging rights," he said.

"We continue to say that Hungary and other Central European countries must do much more to integrate and protect the Roma and other vulnerable minority communities."

The list contains some curious omissions. Countries such as Norway, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland aren't on the list. Though they produce a miniscule number of claims, it's likely they would meet the government's threshold for being generally safe.

Countries such Mexico and India, whose claims do meet the statistical threshold for inclusion on the list, remain exempted.

"It shows you how arbitrary and unobjective this whole process is," said NDP immigration critic Jinny Sims.

"This is not in the hands of an independent panel; this is in the hands of one minister, and I'm finding the whole thing very, very disturbing."

Kenney said EU countries were the only ones analyzed in the first round because they produce the highest number of claims and have common governance and civil-society structures. The resources weren't there to examine all countries at once, and several remain under review, including Mexico and India, he added.

Evaluating the subjective criteria for those countries, India in particular, will likely pose a greater challenge than the EU nations have thus far.

"India, the world's most populous democracy, continues to have a vibrant media, an active civil society, a respected judiciary and significant human rights problems," a recent Human Rights Watch report noted.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 A21

History

Updated on Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 10:41 AM CST: replaces photo

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