Declining refugee numbers prove that Tories are saving money on the backs of vulnerable people: NDP

Problem identified, problem solved.

That's the message from the Harper government who, on Wednesday, announced that refugee claims are at an historic low. According to the new data, the total number of asylum seekers who came into Canada in 2013 dropped almost 50 per cent, from the year before, to only 10,000.

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The government says the drop is a result of their pro-active measures to tackle the problem of fraudulent claims.

Since 2011, the Harper government has made significant changes to the refugee act speeding up processing times and placing restrictions on claimants from countries unlikely to produce legitimate refugees. Asylum seekers from countries designated as 'safe' — countries that generally do not produce refugees, respect human rights and offer state protections — are now processed on an accelerated basis.

The Tories also restricted claimants' health benefits leaving some refugees with only 'urgent health care' and others with care only if they have a disease that would be a risk to the public.

While refugee advocates called the measures unfair, the government justified the changes by citing reports about applicants — primarily from Hungary and Mexico — who came to Canada solely for the purpose of "exploiting" social assistance and health benefits.

In 2012, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney touted statistics, obtained by Postmedia News, which stated that between Jan. 17 and Dec. 31, 2011, "8,819 Mexicans racked up nearly $7 million in health care costs under the Interim Federal Health Program." To add insult to injury, 5,068 refugee applications from Mexico were either rejected, withdrawn or abandoned in 2011.

Current Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says that the government's measures have paid huge dividends saving taxpayers $600 million this year and $1.6 billion over five years.

"The new system is working and we are providing faster protection to those in genuine need," he said in a press release.

"By reducing the number of unfounded claims, we are able to focus our resources on refugees who truly need Canada’s protection. Canadians take great pride in the generosity and compassion of our immigration and refugee programs, but we have no tolerance for those who seek to take unfair advantage of our country. The success of the new system after a year demonstrates that we have reinforced the integrity of the system and are guarding against abuse of our generosity."

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New Democrat MP Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe, who serves as her party's immigration critic, isn't as excited about the new numbers as the Tory minister is.

In a telephone interview with Yahoo Canada News, she says that the new figures show that fewer people have been given access to protection in Canada.

"It...proves that Conservatives want to save money on the backs of very vulnerable people," she said noting that the NDP has never been comfortable with a 'safe list' of countries.

"We have vulnerable [people] trying to get out of the country because they are LGTB living in Mexico or Russia or they are Jewish or Roma living in Hungary trying to flee the violence there. There are legitimate refugee claimants countries. There are people who need protection from safe countries and they don't have the same access [to Canada]."

Toronto-based immigration lawyer Michael Niren concurs with the New Democrats' position saying that the 2013 figures are nothing to be proud of.

"The 'success' that the government has had since changing refugee protection procedures comes at a great cost to legitimate refugee claimants who have [a] well founded fear of persecution," Niren told Yahoo Canada News.

"Canada's reputation as a safe haven for people facing oppression will soon be tarnished if it hasn't already. In the name of administrative efficiency, the government has sacrificed its commitment to protecting the rights of refugees. Canadians would be mistaken if they think such an approach will be confined to refugees. How a nation treats it's newcomers soon becomes reflective of its domestic policies.

"Be careful what you wish for."

(Photo courtesy of Citizenship and Immigration Canada)

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