Mexican tourist Borris Frias takes a picture of travel partners Noe Montano, left, and Erick Ruiz on Parliament Hill Tuesday. Mexicans and Czechs soon need a visa when visiting Canada. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney defended the imposition of new visa requirements on Mexican and Czech citizens Tuesday in a bid to stem a surge in refugee claims by visitors from those countries.

"We're not talking about the kinds of people that are living in UN refugee camps by the millions who are victims of war and state-sponsored persecution," Kenney told CBC in an interview.

"It's an insult to the important concept of refugee protection to allow it be systematically violated by people who are overwhelmingly economic immigrants."

Requiring visas of foreign visitors is the norm, and the majority of Canadians will support the decision, he added.

"It's not a pleasant thing to do, but it's absolutely necessary to protect the integrity of our immigration system and our laws."

The Czech government responded to the decision by recalling its ambassador Tuesday and said it will require some Canadians to have visas when they visit the Czech Republic.

"It’s quite a normal diplomatic step that we are taking," Helena Bambasova, the Czech Republic's deputy foreign minister, told CBC. "We want to consult what steps should be taken, what reaction should be done, what can we do about that because I have to admit, we are rather disappointed by the decision of your government."


Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaks to the CBC Tuesday about the visa changes. ((CBC))

The Czech government is also proposing to slap visa requirements on Canadian diplomats and Canadians visiting the Czech Republic on business. Bambasova said her government will consult with the European Union, suggesting they may try to get member countries to respond similarly.

"All the 27 member countries have no visa arrangements for the Canadians and since it has been violated or Canada decided to behave otherwise to one of the conditions, a decision has to be taken. But I don’t want to foresee what that will be," Bambasova said.

However, as a member of the EU, the Czech Republic can't unilaterally impose a visa requirement on Canadians, according to Kenney.

EU spokesman Michele Cercone said the European Commission plans no immediate action, but "regrets" Ottawa's decision and was seeking consultations with Canadian officials shortly.

"We expect the measures introduced by Canada to be temporary, and we hope that full visa free travel between the EU and Canada is re-established soon," Cercone said.

Canada already requires visas for citizens from two other EU countries: Bulgaria and Romania.

The change took effect at 12:01 a.m. ET on Tuesday. For the first 48 hours, Mexicans and Czechs will be able to apply for entry on arrival in Canada. However, after 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, all visitors from those countries must have a visa when they arrive at a point of entry.

Mexico leads refugee claims

Mexico is now the No. 1 source of refugee claims, with the number almost tripling to more than 9,400 since 2005, the Immigration Department said in a release Monday. The figure represents one-quarter of all claims made. About 90 per cent of the claims are rejected.

The Czech Republic ranks second with nearly 3,000 refugee claims filed since the visa requirement for visitors from that country was lifted in October 2007. That compares with fewer than five claims in 2006, the department said.

Visitors from the two countries will have to satisfy visa officers that their visit to Canada will be temporary and they won't overstay their approved time. They'll also need to have enough money to cover their stay, be in good health, have no criminal record and pose no security risk.

The Immigration Department said it is working to increase its visa processing capacity in Mexico City, but the sudden imposition of the requirement will mean short-term delays in travel as resources are put in place.


Helena Bambasova, deputy minister of foreign affairs of the Czech Republic, says her country is pulling its ambassador to Canada in response to Canada's new visa rules. ((Buddhika Weerasinghe/Reuters))

Visitors from the Czech Republic will need to submit their applications to the Canadian visa office in Vienna, Austria, which currently serves citizens from several European countries.

Czech Premier Jan Fischer has called the Canadian step one-sided and wrong, adding he would ask the European Union to help restore the visa-free status.

In a statement, the Mexican government said it regretted Canada's decision and will promote actions to modify the decision. So far, Mexico has not announced it will take any measures in response.

Mexican authorities blamed the rise in bogus claims on "the unrestricted operation of intermediary groups and organizations" which charge fees to assist people in making their cases.

"These organizations have encouraged this practice among Mexicans acting in good faith, charging fees for advisory, logistical and training services to then present fraudulent cases," the government statement.

Immigration experts blast move

Immigration experts said demanding visas from all Mexicans and Czechs entering the country is not the answer because it lumps fraudulent claims with legitimate ones.

"By imposing the visa system … obviously we're putting an enormous obstacle in the paths of people who genuinely have a fear of persecution in their country," Joseph Allan, an immigration lawyer in Montreal told CBC.

The move will push many asylum seekers underground, Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told CBC.

"This is a good day for people smugglers. The Canadian government is giving new business to people who make money out of people's desperate need to get to a country of safety."

Tourism industry already 'suffering'

The NDP called on the government to review the decision and at least delay any change until after the summer tourist season.

"This couldn't have come at a worse time, at the very height of the tourism season," said NDP tourism critic Bruce Hyer. "More than 200,000 Mexican tourists visited Canada last year, but now many planning to visit Canada will have to cancel their bookings."

Canadian tour companies said the policy change being imposed at the last minute further threatens an already struggling industry.

"What really hurts about this is there was no warning at all," said Hume Rogers, manager of Ottawa's Capital Hotel and Suites.

Kenney said no prior notice was given of the new visa rule to avoid a flood of people trying to enter Canada before the change.

With files from The Associated Press