Temporary visa versus refugee status reforms

| April 20, 2014 | 0 Comments
Canada's imposition of temporary visa requirements on a “friendly country” has been an effective, if blunt, way for Canada to stop potential asylum-seekers. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper heard again at the Three Amigos Summit hosted by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, that it comes with a price in Canada’s bilateral relations with Mexico.

Canada’s imposition of temporary visa requirements on a “friendly country” has been an effective, if blunt, way for Canada to stop potential asylum-seekers. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper heard again at the Three Amigos Summit hosted by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, that it comes with a price in Canada’s bilateral relations with Mexico.

The beginning of the 20th Century ushered in the increased need for global travellers to obtain a visa before entering another country for a temporary period. The visa is a means of pre-screening to ensure people who may be inadmissible for health, security or criminal reasons are prevented from arriving at a port of entry. It is also a means of facilitating the entry of people who are genuine visitors, without intentions of remaining permanently. Although possession of a visa is not a guarantee of entry, it speeds up examination procedures upon arrival.
Canada exempts citizens of most of the developed countries, including the United States and much of the European Union, from requiring temporary visas. Occasionally Canada is compelled to impose a visa requirement on a friendly country, when some of its citizens prove to be abusing their visa-exempt status. This can cause problems.
Forcing visitors from a friendly country to acquire a temporary visa is interpreted as an unfriendly act and damages relations between the two countries. Moreover, it is not in any nation’s interest to slow down tourism and inhibit trade by placing restrictions on travel. There is also a risk that the affected country may reciprocate by demanding that visiting Canadians have temporary visas.
Despite these drawbacks, the use of the temporary visa has been the method of choice by successive Canadian governments to stop the flow of visitors from countries whose citizens have been shown to be abusing visa-free privileges. The abuse has been widespread and has been directly related to Canada’s generous asylum system.

Immigration reform, now overseen by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, was long overdue, argues James Bissett.

Immigration reform, now overseen by Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, was long overdue, argues James Bissett.

Canada permits anyone from any country who has entered the country to apply for refugee status and the Supreme Court has ruled that asylum claimants are entitled to due process of law guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This has meant, in practice, that the system for dealing with asylum applications became entangled in long, drawn-out legal procedures, effectively paralysing expeditious decision-making. Even if after months, if not years, a negative decision was made on the claim for refugee status, the individual was seldom removed.
The word soon spread that entering Canada and applying for asylum was an almost iron-clad guarantee for permanent residency, not to mention free housing, medical care, welfare and legal costs, while waiting for a decision from the Immigration and Refugee Board. The first group of individuals who arrived as tourists in 1980 and then promptly applied for asylum were Sikhs from India. When the numbers kept increasing, the government was forced to impose a temporary visa requirement on India. This action stopped the flow, but did not improve relations with India.
Since 1980, there have been a number of other “friendly” countries whose citizens entered as visitors, but then applied for asylum, including: Pakistan, Portugal, Turkey, Brazil, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, the Czech  Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Mexico. Again, Canada reacted by imposing a temporary visa requirement on these friendly countries. As was to be expected, the countries concerned did not welcome this decision, which they regarded as an unfriendly act. Some reacted by imposing temporary visas on Canadian travellers and others, such as the European Union, threatened to do so.
Nevertheless, the use by Canada of the temporary visa proved to be an effective, if blunt, measure to stop potential asylum-seekers from reaching Canadian territory. But this was always done as a desperate last step and always after many thousands of bogus asylum seekers had already entered.
In 1980, Canada received 1,600 asylum claims and by 1988, the number had reached 45,000. It is estimated that close to one million claims have been registered in the past 30 years. In 2008, asylum claims were filed by citizens of 188 countries, including 22 of the 28 countries of the European Union and 2,300 claims from the U.S.
Canada was not alone in experiencing the asylum-seeker phenomenon of the 1980s, when thousands of people from developing countries began to move into the industrialized countries of Western Europe and North America. Most of these travellers gained entry and then applied for refugee status, as they were entitled to do under the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. It is estimated that from 1980 until the end of the 1990s, more than five million asylum claims were registered in Western Europe and North America. The numbers accelerated at great speed. In 1980, Western European countries had 20,000 asylum claims; by 1992, the number had risen to 560,000. Germany alone had 438,000 claimants that year and 322,000 in 1993.
All of the Western European countries reacted to the overwhelming numbers by enacting stricter methods for dealing with asylum seekers. Germany acted quickly in 1993, despite having to change its 1949 constitution, and passed new and tough asylum laws. The most common feature of the new laws was the designation of certain countries as “safe” for refugees and prohibiting asylum claims from individuals coming from those countries.
Normally, those countries chosen for designation were ones that were democratic, followed the rule of law, had a good human rights record and were also signatories of the UN Refugee Convention. The designation measure was not only effective in stopping the flow, but had the added advantage of avoiding the need to use the temporary visa requirement; thus maintaining good relations with the “designated” country.
Notwithstanding the success of the EU countries in stemming the flow of asylum seekers, successive Canadian governments refused to enact legislation adopting the “safe country” provision. Indeed, any attempt to reform Canada’s outdated and dysfunctional asylum system was fiercely resisted by a powerful refugee lobby composed of refugee advocates such as the Canadian Council for Refugees, immigration lawyers and consultants and a multitude of NGOs and agencies (described by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration as “stakeholders.)
These “stakeholders” were often supported by a compliant media wanting to demonstrate sympathy for anyone claiming asylum despite evidence that only a small percentage were found to be genuine refugees.
Finally, after a quarter of a century of tolerating a dysfunctional and seriously flawed asylum system that had damaged bilateral relations with many countries, was terribly costly to the Canadian taxpayer and was a threat to Canada’s ability to control its borders, the government decided reform was essential.
In June 2012, Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney ushered in  new refugee legislation that incorporated the “safe country” provisions similar to those used by EU countries. There can be little doubt that it was the outcry by the Czech Republic and Hungary, backed by threats from the European Union, of retaliation over the use of the temporary visa imposition that played a part in convincing the government to act.
The new law had an almost immediate effect in reducing the asylum-seeker intake. The flow of asylum seekers was cut in half from 20,000 claims registered in 2012 to 9,700 in 2013. Moreover, the average wait time for a claim to be heard by the Refugee Board in 2012 was 20 months. In 2013, it was reduced to two months. In the three previous years, 25 percent of the asylum claims were filed by claimants from “designated countries,” but in 2013 that number had been reduced to 8 percent.
The reform — long overdue — should now enable Canada to play a more useful role in assisting the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (currently António Guterres) in his efforts to care for and protect the more than 43 million refugees under his mandate. As well, it is doubtful that Canada will be forced again to impose temporary visas on friendly countries.

James Bissett is a former Canadian ambassador and was executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service from 1985 to 1990. He is on the board of directors of the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform.

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Category: Diplomatica

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James Bissett is a former Canadian ambassador and was executive director of the Canadian Immigration Service from 1985 to 1990. He is on the board of directors of the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform.

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