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Fewer refugees seeking asylum inside Canada
Claims fall by 35%
Michael Friscolanti
National Post

CREDIT: Stuart Davis, CanWest News Service
Prospective Canadian citizens line up at government offices in Vancouver. A Citizenship and Immigration official says the declining refugee numbers will allow the IRB to deal with a huge backlog of pending cases, which sits at more than 36,000.

The number of foreigners seeking refugee status in Canada dropped so sharply in early 2004 that the year-end total could prove to be the lowest in two decades, internal statistics show.

During the first five months of the year, 9,956 people sought asylum inside Canada -- a 35% drop from the 15,379 newcomers who filed refugee claims during the same period last year.

That gap was widest in January and February, when claims were down by nearly 40%, according to a recent intelligence digest prepared by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The data refers only to those people who filed refugee claims at locations inside Canada, such as airports and border crossings. Thousands of others come to Canada every year as privately or government-sponsored refugees.

"While predictions can fluctuate in the dynamic world of international migration, these initial figures indicate that, in the unlikely event of any unforeseen significant inflows, Canada may record as few as 19,900 refugee claims in 2004, the lowest total since 13,000 in 1983," reads the CBSA brief, obtained by the National Post under the federal Access to Information Act.

The agency's numbers appear to clash with the Immigration and Refugee Board -- IRB statistics say the lowest tally was 12,092 in 1989 -- but the basic trend remains the same: Canada is poised for a possible record-low influx of refugee claimants.

The CBSA digest notes that although immigration forecasting is "an inexact science, a more likely year-end total might approximate 22,000." That would be the lowest amount since 1990.

Even if the sum reaches 30,000, it will still mark the third consecutive year that in-Canada asylum claims have plummeted, from 44,028 in 2001 to 39,516 in 2002 to 32,268 in 2003.

The drop also coincides with a global decline in refugees. The United Nations said this week the number has fallen to 9.7-million worldwide, the lowest level in at least 10 years.

Canada's huge dip over the past five months can be traced back to last year's decision by the United States to register all male visitors from 25 mostly Arab and Muslim countries, including Pakistan. The crackdown triggered an exodus to the Canadian border and a surge in Arab refugee claimants in 2003, but that swell has since subsided, resulting in drastically fewer cases so far this year.

As for the overall trend in recent years, both the government and immigration experts say it is the direct result of tighter migration controls adopted by Canada after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Officials abroad are much more strict about who boards airplanes bound for Canada. Identification papers are subject to tighter scrutiny, and most foreign passengers now require visitor visas.

Consequently, an unprecedented number of improperly documented arrivals -- the type of people who file refugee claims -- are being intercepted before ever getting on a plane.

"The tragic part about it is that legitimate refugees are having a more difficult time getting to Canada and saving their lives," said Mendel Green, a prominent Toronto immigration lawyer. "I have no problem with [cracking down on] the abusers, but it's making it almost impossible for people who truly fear persecution to escape from their countries."

Reaching that balance poses a problem for the federal government. Judy Sgro, the Immigration Minister, said in a speech last month that Canada's refugee system needs to be reformed in order to protect those who need protection and thwart those who do not.

"Canadians are generous, but we are not naive," she said. "We've opened our gates to those in need throughout our short history. But today we also need to make sure those who wish to abuse our generosity or the very small number who threaten our security are not granted the same welcome."

James Bissett, a former Canadian ambassador, said reducing the number of in-Canada refugee claims is a good start. He said many people are "queue jumping" -- sneaking into Canada and filing an asylum claim rather than waiting years to be approved under the standard immigration program.

"This is the greatest threat to North American security," he said, noting that since the IRB was formed in 1998, only 51% of all refugee claimants have been deemed legitimate. "It undermines everything that the Americans and Canadians might do along the border, overseas, or inland. We just let these people in."

Refugee advocates concede that Canada has a right to deny entry to certain people, but they want the government to remedy the decline by accepting more people from refugees camps. Many are already deemed to be legitimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees but would never have the resources to travel to Canada on their own.

The federal government sponsors thousands of such refugees every year, and private individuals sponsor thousands of others. But while in-Canada refugee claims have dwindled, these have remained relatively static. Since 1998, government-sponsored claims have fluctuated annually between 7,200 and 7,500, while privately sponsored claims have gone from 2,200 to 3,200.

Canada needs to boost those numbers, said Gloria Nafziger, refugee co-ordinator for the Canadian chapter of Amnesty International. "I hope that when Canadians hear the word refugee that they respond with compassion, rather than thinking: 'Oh my God, aren't we lucky we're off the hook,' " she said yesterday.

Jean-Pierre Morin, a spokes-man for Citizenship and Immigration, said refugee claim numbers tend to vary from year to year. In 1998, for example, 23,900 people sought asylum in Canada. Two years later, the figure was up to 34,295.

He also said the declining numbers will allow the Immigration and Refugee Board to deal with a huge backlog of pending cases, which sits at more than 36,000.

"We are very generous in Canada regarding refugees," he said. "There is a will to do as much as we can."

© National Post 2004

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