Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Papers -- I didn't need papers when I got on the plane!

It's been about a week since PMS announced, totally out of the blue, visa restrictions on Mexico and the Czech Republic. We're still feeling the repercussions. The government claims it is because of bogus refugee claims from people who make claims for status once they arrive in Canada.

But doing so without much more justification than that is more than just perplexing, it's stupid; and it's creating a common template on two completely different issues.

There is, at least on the surface, a disproportionate number of Roma out of the total number of people who apply for immigrant status from the Czech Republic. And certainly, there is strong evidence that the Romany are being discriminated against throughout the EU. There are mechanisms to deal with this legally in Europe, including at the European Court on Human Rights. For many this obviously takes too long so they look for a safe third country. Since the US appears to be so bureaucratic, and especially with a backlash against even legal immigrants thanks to the Lou Dobbs Army, many see Canada as the "safe" alternative.

But it makes no sense to brush all Czech citizens with the same brush. Not all of those who are Czech bear an animus towards the Roma.

And traditionally Canada have given visa-free access to all EU citizens, a throw-back to our strong cultural, economic and military ties to Western and Central Europe. In return, the Schengen Area affords visa-free access to Canadians provided one gets his or her passport stamped within the first 72 hours of arriving in the first Schengen state he or she enters. It wouldn't take a stretch for the Schengen states to impose restrictions on Canadians in retaliation -- and one imagines, even the UK and Ireland as well since they're more likely to show solidarity with their European partners than their cousins across the sea.

Doing this on short notice was also just bad public relations. If there was a genuine concern, such as an identifiable terrorist group based in central Europe, then Canada should have asked permission to access the information system that lists people on the watch list throughout Europe and who are otherwise restricted from travelling and then put them on our watch list as well.

This also kind of puts a big wrench in the present free-trade negotiations we're having with the EU right now. The EU will absolutely insist that most favoured nation status, including visa-free travel, become permanent and irrevocable, before the treaty is finalized.

Even without such concerns, the visa is way past its prime. If we need a way to control the flow of people coming into Canada, the best way is what the Aussies do -- an electronic travel authority (ETA) that is purchased online once a passage is booked, and is tied to one's passport number. No paperwork, no sticker, no photos, just a confirmation that one is permitted to enter the country, and is cleared once the passport is shown and cross-referenced against the authority on-line and any watch lists.

That being said, I do think there is an argument that purely economic refugees should be dealt with firmly, and excluded from the country. This isn't like the Sudan or North Korea. If one wants to make a claim under the Geneva Conventions from a developed country, there is no reason why he or she can't do so at the Embassy and ask for an expedited claim.

As far as Mexico goes -- I do have concerns about the high rate of crime in that country right now and some people wanting to escape from there. That does not in and of itself amount to a legitimate refugee claim. Nor does economic persecution. The standard for proving political prosecution is very high. I ask if some of the claimants, having failed in the US or fearing they might, are trying for status in Canada because of our perceived more lenient policies (which runs the claimants against the Safe Third Country agreement which provides that one must apply for asylum in the first country they enter).

Still, we do get a lot of tourist trade from Mexico, and imposing a visa requirement on such short notice is not just idiotic but a money grab as well. Are the Conservatives so short of money that they decide that, our having been taxed enough, they will try to get a pound of flesh from those who visit us? What impression does that leave with people looking in?

We need to be absolutely clear on what our policies are and not just make them up. If there is going to be a visa requirement, it should be on six months' notice. If a country is part of a trade block, then the visa requirement should extend to the whole block and then only for the minimum period absolutely necessary to resolve whatever issue there might be in having created the backlog. And finally, we should be using our voice to ensure human rights are respected everywhere. If there's a problem with a minority in a specific country, we should use diplomatic means before using the hammer.

My father came here as a refugee, a legitimate one. Despite his and my concerns about illegal immigrants -- and our differences in politics -- even he would agree that a country shouldn't just change things on the fly, just to appease their base.

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