But the Conservatives' visa ploy ran athwart of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and tarnished Canada's reputation in the process.
The Conservatives claim the refugee system needs to be changed, and they point to the large backlog of cases as proof. But the backlog is of their own making, a direct result of funding cuts and the failure to replace Immigration and Refugee Board decision-makers when their terms expire.
This very good article from Embassy magazine, "Canada's foreign policy newspaper," explains. Emphasis mine.
UN Refugee Agency Cries Foul on Mexican, Czech Visas
By Jeff Davis
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has serious concerns about the government's decision to impose visas on Czech and Mexican nationals in an effort to reduce refugee claims.
In an interview with Embassy last week, Abraham Abraham, the UNHCR's top representative in Canada, said such actions go against the spirit of refugee protection, and that Canada's actions could create a negative precedent, and weaken the foundation of global refugee protection regime.
"Visas are a prerogative of states," Mr. Abraham said. "But imposing a visa that will lead to, basically, reduction in the capacity of people to access protection or asylum is something that is inconsistent with a commitment...to protect refugees.
"Restricting the arrival of people is in a way tantamount to excluding them from the possibility of being able to seek asylum. That to us is disturbing because the commitment of states to refugee protection is the core of the entire protection regime, and if that is diminished in any way, it can affect the protection of refugees at a much, much larger scale elsewhere."
In recent months, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper have alleged that many Mexican and Czech citizens — as well as US war resisters — are making "bogus" refugee claims. They say the claims have bogged down the refugee system and created a crisis that can only be solved with visa requirements.
But Mr. Abraham said individual rights lie at the very heart of international refugee protection, and that generalizations cannot be made about groups of people. About 10 per cent of Mexican asylum seekers, he reminds, are legitimate refugee claimants. And while these may be vastly outnumbered by incorrect or fraudulent claims, the legitimate claims must be recognized as such.
"Refugee status determination is an individual rights-based approach," he said. "You cannot generalize that a particular nationality, or a group of people, are all refugees or are not refugees. You can't do that because it's an individual rights-based approach, and determinations are made on the basis of individual persons."
Mr. Abraham lamented the fact legitimate Czech and Mexican refugee claimants will be negatively affected by the visa requirements and won't find the protection they need.
"It makes us a little bit sad, or rather a little fearful, to think that...those in the future will not be able to gain asylum and protection," he said. "To me, that is certainly a diminution of the protection responsibility [of Canada]."
Messrs. Harper and Kenney have also said in recent weeks that Canada's refugee system and laws are "broken."
Mr. Abraham disagreed, however, and said that Canada's refugee determination system is perhaps the best in the world, due to its objectivity and insulation from outside interference. He added that the UNHCR routinely calls on countries around the world to emulate the Canadian example.
"For us in UNHCR, we consider the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to be a paragon of excellence," he said. "Canada is a good model to emulate. Canada is best practice."
Due to its track record of just treatment for refugees, Mr. Abraham said, Canada belongs to a small group of nations who are looked to to lead by example.
"We are talking about these countries being the guardians of the very fundamental principles of refugee protection," he said. "And there is an expectation that they will abide by the [1951 UN] Convention [on Refugees]."
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the UNHCR is known as a very cautious and diplomatic organization when it comes to criticizing nations like Canada, which accepts large numbers of refugees.
She said Mr. Abraham's "unusually outspoken" comments indicate the UNHCR is very worried the government is "backing away" from a commitment to refugee protection.
She said the government's casual generalizations about the legitimacy of claims made by groups such as Mexicans and Czech Roma betray a lack of understanding and commitment to the core principles of refugee protection.
"Anyone who knows anything about refugee determination knows you cannot talk about a whole group not being refugees," she said. "You have to hear the individual claims and make an individual determination based on the facts of the individual case.
"I think that Mr. Abraham was right in suggesting that it points towards Canada moving away from a traditional commitment to refugee protection," Ms. Dench said. "It looks like we're turning out backs on refugees."
NDP Immigration Critic Olivia Chow said the Conservative government has manufactured a crisis at the IRB, and is now using it to impose a "two-tier" refugee system where citizens from so-called safe countries are treated differently. Mr. Kenney has been alluding to a two-tier system for months, while Canwest News Service reported this week the government will move to introduce such a system when Parliament resumes.
Ms. Chow said a move towards a two-tier refugee system would fail to protect many vulnerable individuals who come from developed, democratic nations but face persecution nonetheless. She cited gays and lesbians, who face the death penalty in some countries, and women fleeing domestic abuse as examples.
"Those individuals that are most vulnerable, not necessarily because of their nationality but because of who they are, will get rejected out of hand because they come from a 'safe country,'" she said. "That's a huge step backward on individual rights-based refugees determination process, for which Canada is proud and internationally known."
Ms. Chow said fixing the problem of IRB backlogs is not "rocket science," and requires simply more resources and more judges.
Mr. Abraham seemed to agree.
"What's important is that no asylum seeker should be turned away because we have a duty and a responsibility to listen to the person and determine that person's status," he said. "And that of course may require resources, but we must remember this is a humanitarian and a compassionate act, to listen to them and be able to provide that protection they are seeking."