More Venezuelans denied entry to Canada as country's political, economic crisis deepens
Immigration Minister Hussen insists there is no political interference in individual cases
A Gatineau, Que. doctor says Venezuelans caught in a deepening political and economic crisis at home are being unfairly being denied travel visas to Canada.
Gabriela Prada said she hoped her sister and mother could visit to attend her daughter's graduation, but their visa applications were turned down. A letter explaining the rationale for her sister's refusal cited family ties to Canada and turmoil in her home country.
"Given the deteriorating social, economic and political situations in Venezuela, I am not satisfied that you are a bona fide visitor who will depart Canada by the end of any authorized stay," the letter reads.
Prada said that decision is inappropriate and runs counter to Canada's foreign policy position that joins other countries in condemning the escalating humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.
"It is good for Canada to endorse other countries, but at the same time, it discriminates (against) Venezuelans' applications to come to Canada. The policies do not seem in line to me," she said.
Prada said family members have come to Canada several times in past and have never abused their visa privileges. Her sister and mother have no intention of staying in Canada, she added.
Several countries, including Colombia and Brazil, have tightened border controls as desperate Venezuelans flee hyperinflation and the deep, lingering recession gripping the once-prosperous South American country.
Venezuela's collapsing economy has led to shortages of food and basic goods, high unemployment and rampant crime.
In April, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the situation a "humanitarian crisis" and a source of grave concern to Canada and the world.
Figures from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) provided to CBC News show the number of visa applications from Venezuelans has remained steady over the last few years — but the rejection rate has increased.
In 2016, there were 11,919 applications, with 9,220 approved, 2,683 rejected and 93 withdrawn — a rejection rate of about 22 per cent.
Last year, nearly half of the 11,640 applications were rejected. And in the first three months of 2018, more than 54 per cent of the 2,307 applications have been denied.
A spokesman for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said each case is assessed on its merits in a fair manner.
"Visa applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis on the specific facts presented by the applicant in each case," said Mathieu Genest. "Decisions are made by highly trained visa officers in accordance with Canadian immigration law. Visa officers are independent decision-makers."
Visa officers consider many factors to determine if an applicant is a genuine temporary resident, including the person's ties to the home country, the purpose of the visit, the person's family and economic situation, the overall economic and political stability of the home country and the nature of invitations from Canadian hosts.
Greater turmoil, fewer visas
Economic and political instability can lead to an increase in refusals of visa applications, as officers weigh those factors in determining if the applicant intends to return to their home country at the end of their stay.
Canada has condemned last month's presidential election that saw incumbent Socialist leader Nicolás Maduro re-elected for another six-year term, calling it "illegitimate and anti-democratic," and has downgraded diplomatic relations with the government in Caracas.
Canada also has imposed two rounds of targeted sanctions and is working with international partners to pressure the Maduro regime to restore democracy in Venezuela.
This week, Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel questioned how Canada could be a signatory to a declaration by the 14-nation "Lima Group" of countries in the Americas deploring Venezuela's "serious humanitarian situation" while taking a tougher approach to issuing visas.
She also asked whether Canada is taking a hard line on visas because of the irregular migration problem.
"Is your department proactively refusing visas given the burden caused by the number of people illegally entering the country from the United States and subsequently claming asylum in Canada?" she asked Hussen during a committee appearance.
Hussen said asylum seekers have "absolutely no impact" on regular migration streams, and insisted that visa officers work independently to determine who the bona fide travellers are.
"They make their decisions independently and free of political interference," he said.
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said visa requirements are a serious barrier for people trying to flee their country to seek refugee status in other countries.
"It would be of considerable concern if Venezuelans who might otherwise be eligible for Canadian visas are being denied simply because there is an assumption that, due to the country's human rights crisis, individuals in general are less likely to leave Canada to return home and might instead claim refugee status," he said.
"This is a time for Canada to be ensuring that Venezuelans who require protection from human right violations obtain it, particularly given the strong stand that the Canadian government has taken with respect to the country's deplorable current human rights record."
According to data from the Immigration and Refugee Board, 1,240 refugee claims involving Venezuelans were referred in 2017. Of the cases finalized last year, 388 were approved and 106 were denied. In the first quarter of 2018, there were 287 cases of Venezuelans referred to the IRB. Of the cases finalized in that period, 100 were approved and 76 were turned down.