12/14/2012 10:43 EST | Updated 02/13/2013 05:12 EST

New Canadian Immigration Rules: 'Safe' Countries List Aimed At Bogus Refugees (VIDEO)

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 as being 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 being 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 would 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drawn up by first examining which countries produce the highest rates of failed claimants — claims that are abandoned, withdrawn or rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board.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," Kenney 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 like 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.

At the same time, countries like 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 report cited the terrorist bombings of 2011, ongoing insurgency operations in several provinces, the continued existence of the death penalty and mass graves in Kashmir.

At the same time, Canada is negotiating a number of trade deals with India, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled earlier this year.

That highlights the geopolitical issues at play with the creation of lists, Nafziger said.

"It's very, very hard not to allow political interests to get in the way of the determination of whether or not a country is thought to be safe," she said.

"If you want to do business with India, what are you doing to do in terms of declaring refugees from that country when the reality may be there are huge problems?"

Meanwhile, negotiations are also currently underway with the EU for a major free trade deal.

The only two EU countries not on the safe list are Romania and Bulgaria. Visa restrictions on both have led them to suggest they won't ratify the deal.

Kenney said ongoing CETA negotiations are taking place independent of refugee policy discussions, but he couldn't say what would happen if those two countries hold out on ratification because of Canada's immigration policy.

Meanwhile, Canada is also negotiating major free trade deals with Latin American countries and recently signed a major investment protection deal with China.

Kenney said a country like China would never meet the criteria for inclusion on the list.

But that doesn't mean Canada can't pursue vigorous economic relationships with certain countries on the one hand, and assess them as being legitimate sources of refugees on the other, Kenney said.

"This is not a value judgment about any country," he said.

"This is an assessment of whether countries known normally to produce refugees, and this list is not exhaustive."

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