New, tougher reforms to refugee legislation that hasn't yet come into force are already drawing fire from critics who say they give Canada's immigration minister too much power and risk the lives of claimants.

Bill C-31, introduced Thursday by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, toughens the measures taken in the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, a compromise bill passed under a Conservative minority government. That earlier bill has yet to be implemented. It was due to be up and running by June 29.

Kenney says he wants the new bill passed by that date and implemented sometime next fall.

The bill will implement long-planned biometric identification — including fingerprints and photos — for people who apply for visas to visit Canada, and allow the minister to select which countries are "safe," known as a designated country of origin.

Speaking to Evan Solomon, host of CBC's Power & Politics, Kenney said the information would eventually be purged but didn't know after how long. He said his department is working with Canada's privacy commissioner to develop the system.

Under the new bill:

  • The immigration minister would have the power to place countries on the safe country list without benefit of a committee that was to include human-rights experts. The committee would be scrapped.
  • Claimants from countries on the safe country list whose claims are rejected would no longer be allowed to appeal the decision to a new appeals body within the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).
  • Claimants from countries on the safe country list would have to wait a full year to apply for humanitarian and compassionate consideration to become permanent residents, which would take into account issues of personal hardship. In the interim, they could be deported.
  • Claimants from countries on the safe country list would be allowed to ask for a judicial review by the Federal Court, but there would be no stay of their deportation pending a decision. That means failed applicants could be deported before the court rules on their case.

Canadians have no tolerance for "bogus refugees" and a growing number of claimants from European Union democracies, Kenney said Thursday as he introduced the bill.

Canada gets more refugee claims from Europe than from Africa or Asia, he said, with 23 per cent of all refugee claims made in Canada last year by nationals from the EU. At the same time, he said, over 95 per cent of EU claims were withdrawn, abandoned or rejected over the past few years.

But rolling back those compromises means a rejection of good, sound legislation, NDP immigration critic Don Davies said Thursday.

Davies said the new bill rejects the compromise reached with the government, one Kenney said at the time was stronger than the initial bill he'd tabled. 

And, Davies said, it "once again puts too much power in the hands of the minister."

Kenney had said he's willing to look at amendments to the bill, but Davies wouldn't say whether he's preparing any.

Roma claims spike

A source familiar with the new bill said the government is grappling with a spike in claims from the ethnic Roma communities of eastern Europe. In particular, there was a doubling of claims from Hungary in 2011 to 4,900, up from 2,400 the year before. The current acceptance rate for claims from Hungary is about two per cent.

The Czech Republic is currently under visa restrictions due to a similar influx of Roma claimants. Poland and Romania are seeing an outflow of Roma refugee claimants as well.

"We have to keep bogus claimants out," the source said. "How is it the U.S. had 47 claims in 2009 and 2010 while Canada had 4,700 claims in the same time period?"

In his interview with Solomon, Kenney said the bill isn't targeting the Roma.

"Obviously the Roma community in Europe has always faced difficulty, there's no doubt about that," he said. But whether it reaches the level of persecution is another question, Kenney added.

Refugee experts warn that the new bill could put lives at stake by giving the minister too much authority over the safe country list while eliminating an appeal process.

"Safe country is a very dangerous concept in the world of law," Peter Showler, a former chair of the IRB and an expert in refugee law at the University of Ottawa, told CBC News. "From virtually every country there are some people who are safe and some people who are not. If the minister removes [the advisory committee] then the danger is of arbitrary placement on the list and particularly for political reasons."

Safe country lists need checks, balances

Safe country lists can work, but only when there are adequate checks and balances, including the right to an appeal and adequate time to prepare a claim, Showler said.

"To remove that appeal for any category of person is highly objectionable. You're taking the risk that they're going to be sent back to persecution," he said.

The new bill may also seek to change the amount of time claimants from safe countries have to prepare their claim. Under the bill passed in 2010, they would get 60 days to complete their claims (claimants not on the designated list get 90 days). Sources familiar with the new bill suggest that time frame may be narrowed even further, possibly through regulation, once the bill is passed.

The new bill would allow Canada to get out of sticky diplomatic situations that have led to visas being imposed on trading partners. In 2009 Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled to Mexico to announce visa restrictions would be imposed while his government worked to "fix" a flawed refugee system at home.

Three years later the visa restriction is still in place, creating an irritant in the relationship between the two countries. Similarly, sources close to the bill say the government is reluctant to impose visa restrictions on Hungary while EU trade talks evolve, and is hankering to lift the visa restriction on the Czech Republic for the same reason.

The idea of placing Mexico on the safe list bothers most refugee experts including Showler, who notes claimants from the country have a 10 per cent acceptance rate in Canada, "and that's after the minister has put considerable pressure on the board not to accept claims from Mexico."

"If anything we've seen in the past year push-back from not only refugee board members but also from the Federal Court acknowledging that Mexico is a dangerous place and that there are many legitimate claimants from that country," Showler said. "It would be a travesty if Mexico were put on the designated list."