OTTAWA - The Conservative government is using its majority to once again overhaul the refugee system to reduce what it considers to be bogus claims.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tabled legislation in the House of Commons on Thursday that reverses some key concessions the Tories made to the opposition two years ago in order to pass the Balanced Refugee Reform Act through a minority Parliament.
This new legislation, called the Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act, more closely resembles the original refugee bill as tabled by the Tories, before any concessions.
But Kenney says a glut of refugee claims from the European Union has forced the government to adopt even tougher measures.
"We worked with the opposition in good faith and we ended up with a bill that was a huge improvement over the status quo," he said Thursday.
"But we have a serious problem. We're facing a large wave of unfounded asylum claims coming from the European Union in particular. The only tool we have to address that now is the imposition of a visa. That hurts Canada's commercial, diplomatic interests. It hurts the tourism industry. We need other tools to address it."
Canada is close to inking a free-trade agreement with the European Union. The Czech Republic has threatened to hold up the deal if Canada does not get rid of a visa requirement it slapped on Czech citizens in 2009.
The new legislation would give the federal immigration minister final say over which countries are considered safe and which are not.
Refugees from safe countries whose claims are rejected will no longer be permitted to appeal the decision to the Immigration and Refugee Board. They are allowed to appeal to the board under the current legislation.
All rejected claimants can still appeal to the Federal Court, but they can be kicked out of the country while they wait for a ruling.
"We are sending a message today," Kenney said. "If you do not need Canada's protection, we will give you access to our fair asylum system quickly and then send you home quickly.
"You will not be allowed to remain in Canada for years using endless appeals at the expense of Canadian taxpayers."
The purpose of the safe-country list is to reduce the number of claims from places such as Hungary and Mexico, which have democratically elected governments and generally follow human-rights treaties.
"Our generous asylum system has been abused by people making bogus refugee claims," Kenney said.
"Our government is very concerned about the recent increase in refugee claims from democratic countries that respect human rights."
Citizenship and Immigration says there is now a backlog of nearly 42,000 cases at the Immigration and Refugee Board. It takes four-and-a-half years, on average, to kick a failed refugee claimant out of the country.
Canada will continue to accept legitimate refugees, Kenney said.
The proposed legislation also contains provisions for cracking down on human smugglers and it would let the government collect biometric data from people who apply to come to Canada on visitor visas or work and study permits.
NDP critic Don Davies called the bill "a serious step backwards for Canada's refugee system."
"This bill once again puts too much power in the hands of the minister," Davies said. "This bill politicizes a process which should be judicial. It should be, it must be impartial, fair and arm's-length."
The Canadian Council for Refugees also expressed concern over the proposed legislation.
"The bill is discriminatory and creates a two-tier system of refugee protection in Canada," said Wanda Yamamoto, the group's president.
"It also makes it dangerously vulnerable to political considerations, rather than ensuring a fair and independent decision about who is a refugee. Our refugee system needs to give everyone a fair hearing, based on the facts of their case and regardless of their country of origin."