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03/22/2013

Canada drops in UN refugee rankings

Canada has a well-earned reputation as a welcoming country that opens its doors to refugees.

New stats released Thursday by the United Nations, however, suggest that door isn’t being opened as widely these days.

In 2012, Canada received 20,500 new asylum seekers, 19 per cent fewer than the previous year. Canada ranked No. 7 among industrialized nations for receiving refugees, trailing the likes of Switzerland, France and Sweden.

The U.S., by contrast, received 83,400 new asylum seekers in 2012, up 10 per cent.

The new UN stats highlight how effective travel visas can be at thwarting would-be refugees.

In 2009, Canadian immigration minister Jason Kenney introduced new regulations requiring travelers from the Czech Republic obtain visas before coming to Canada.

Kenney says Roma from Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, fraudulently come to Canada claiming asylum in order to take advantage of free health care and low-cost housing here.

During 2008 and 2009, Canada was the 2nd and 3rd highest destination country for asylum seekers.

“The relatively high number of Czech asylum applications during this period partly contributed to Canada’s high ranking,” the U.N. report says. “In the second half of 2009, Canada introduced visa requirements for Czech citizens. As a result, the number of asylum seekers from the Czech republic dropped from more than 2,000 in 2009 to almost zero in subsequent years.”

Kenney recently changed Canada’s immigration laws to make it more difficult for asylum seekers from Hungary to become refugees. Hungary is on a so-called safe country list, which means would-be refugees are fast-tracked through the system. Activists say they stand little chance of success under the new rules.

That may result in a shakeup in Canada’s 2013 refugee stats. Throughout the world, Afghanistan, Syria, Serbia and China produced the most asylum seekers last year.

But the picture looked different in Canada, where Hungary (1,823 cases), China (1,741), Pakistan (808) and India (765) produced the most asylum seekers in Canada last year. It's interesting to note the number of new cases from Hungary, where activists say far-right-wing political groups that target Roma are gaining power, plunged from 4,427 in 2011.

Syria, among the world’s most troubled war zones, produced 336 refugees in Canada last year, up from 176 in 2011.

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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