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Ottawa’s decision to limit Mexican refugee claims discriminatory: groups

Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, right, joins Mexican human rights defenders Marta Sánchez, left to right, Pilar Arrese, a translator (name unknown) Claudia Medina and Brenda Rangel Ortiz on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, June 23, 2016, as they call for rights action on eve of the North American Leaders Summit.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canadian human-rights and refugee groups say the federal government's decision to limit the number of annual Mexican refugee claims is discriminatory, after federal officials had argued the move protects Canada from bogus refugees, many of whom are involved in organized crime syndicates.

Since 2014, the Canada Border Services Agency agents have intercepted more than 100 fraudulently obtained Mexican passports, some of which were carried by members of South American criminal gangs, according to government sources.

The Globe and Mail reported on Wednesday that the Liberal government will follow through on its promise to lift visa restrictions for Mexican travellers effective Dec. 1, but it's prepared to partially reimpose the measure if the number of Mexican asylum seekers surpasses 3,500 within any 12-month period.

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Amnesty International Canada expressed concern about the cap on Mexican asylum seekers "who are fleeing a terrible human-rights crisis."

"To suggest somehow that after a certain number of refugee claims have been made, everyone thereafter no longer has the right or has a valid claim to make in Canada is completely arbitrary. In our view, it would probably be subject to a very legitimate court challenge even, because it's so discriminatory," Alex Neve, the group's secretary-general, told a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday.

Loly Rico, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said she has never heard of the government linking a cap on asylum claims to its visa policy. Refugee protection is a humanitarian matter, not a political one, and Canada must live up to its international commitments on that front, she said.

"Anyone, no matter where you are coming from, has the right to request protection if they need protection," Ms. Rico said. "It shouldn't be related, the listing of the visa with the refugee claimants."

The visa restriction was imposed on Mexico by the previous Conservative government in 2009 in an effort to curb a spike in refugee claims. The number of refugee claims from Mexico plummeted after the policy change, from more than 7,600 in 2009 to only 80 in 2014.

The human-rights situation has continued to deteriorate in Mexico. Amnesty International Canada says that since 2006, more than 27,000 people have disappeared and 100,000 have been killed in Mexico.

Sources say Citizenship and Immigration officials opposed the decision to lift the Mexican visa restriction. They warned that Mexico's poor human-rights record, high crime rates and low standard of living will drive Mexican refugees to Canada. Bureaucrats also said removing the visa restrictions would lead to 3,500 asylum claims in 2017, up to 6,000 the following year and 9,000 in 2019.

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Officials were concerned that the presence of Mexican organized crime groups in Canada would increase and human-smuggling networks would take advantage of Mexico's weak passport security system. The federal cabinet was told Canada would also face pressure to lift visa restrictions on Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Costa Rica, sources say.

The Trudeau cabinet overrode those objections but laid out specific conditions for Mexico, including a requirement that it share background information on travellers to Canada and launch a public relations campaign to discourage Mexicans from seeking asylum here.

"The government has just made the criteria for lifting visa requirements a political decision," said Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel. "I think the government has made a really bad move in terms of setting precedent here."

While the NDP supports the decision, the party's immigration critic, Jenny Kwan, said Canada needs to continue to press Mexico on its human-rights abuses.

The Tourism Industry Association of Canada said it is expecting to see a significant boost in Mexican tourists to Canada. From 2008 to 2010, the number of Mexican visitors dropped to 116,000 from 257,000 annually, according to the association.

The visa agreement will be announced on Tuesday after bilateral talks between Mr. Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in advance of the NAFTA leaders' summit, the last for U.S. President Barack Obama.

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Ottawa Bureau Chief

Robert Fife is The Globe and Mail's Ottawa Bureau Chief and the host of CTV's "Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife." He uncovered the Senate expense scandal, setting the course for an RCMP investigation, audits and reform of Senate expense rules. In 2012, he exposed the E. More

Parliamentary reporter

Michelle Zilio is a reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau. Previously, she was the associate producer of CTV’s Question Period and a political writer for CTVNews.ca. Michelle has also worked as a parliamentary reporter for iPolitics, covering foreign affairs, defence and immigration, and as a city desk reporter at the Ottawa Citizen. More

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