OTTAWA Canada will crack down on what it says is a wave of fake refugee claims from European Union nationals and deny the right of appeal to those deemed to be bogus applicants, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said on Friday.
The right-of-centre Conservative government says that while it wants Canada to remain one of the world's top destinations for refugees, it is being swamped by people who pretend they are escaping persecution but in reality want to sign up for welfare payments.
Starting on Saturday, Ottawa will deal much more quickly with claims made by people from a list of "safe" countries that includes 25 of the European Union's 27 members, as well as Croatia and the United States.
Critics said the new rules meant genuine refugees would not be able to defend themselves before facing deportation.
Kenney said virtually all the claims made by people from the 27 nations in question were either abandoned or withdrawn. Most of the rest were rejected.
"It is a cause for serious concern that the European Union, with its democratic tradition of freedom, respect for human rights and independent judiciaries, has been the number-one source for asylum claims made in Canada over the past three years," he told a news conference.
"Failed EU claimants are able to spend years in Canada at great expense to our taxpayers - receiving free healthcare, welfare, education and other social benefits," he said.
From now on, he said, nationals from the 27 nations filing claims for asylum would have their cases heard within 45 days, rather than around 600 days as at present. They will not be allowed to appeal to a new refugee appeal division set up by the government.
Canada's longstanding humanitarian tradition has made it a preferred haven for people fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries.
Rights group Amnesty International criticized the government plan.
"Denying claimants access to an appeal, based solely on the country from which they have come, is unequal and unfair treatment," said Gloria Nafziger of Amnesty International Canada.
"It may lead to mistakes going uncorrected and refugees being forcibly returned to a risk of persecution ... This provision will have a particularly harsh impact on refugees who are fleeing persecution that is not well documented or acknowledged by officials, including human rights violations due to their gender or sexual orientation."
In June, Canada withdrew health benefits for asylum seekers from safe nations, saying they could only receive medical treatment in an emergency. It defended the measure on cost grounds.
Kenney said Canada already welcomed one in every 10 resettled refugees around the world and would increase its target by 20 percent.
Hungary, he noted, was the top source of asylum claims in Canada in 2011. A full 98 percent of all asylum claims made by Hungarians around the world were made in Canada, even though Hungarians as EU citizens could travel freely within the bloc.
Since 2008 Canada has received around 6,000 asylum claims from Hungarians, of which 62 percent were either abandoned or withdrawn and a further 33 percent were rejected.
In 2010, the far-right Jobbik movement became the third-biggest party in the Hungarian parliament after a campaign which vilified the Roma minority. Last month a Jobbik lawmaker said it would be "timely" to draw up a list of people of Jewish ancestry who posed a national-security risk.
The only two EU countries not on the list of safe countries are Romania and Bulgaria, since their nationals make a higher percentage of successful asylum claims. Kenney said Mexico and Israel could be added to the list in future.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by David Brunnstrom)