Years the Tories spent streamlining immigration system may bite them during refugee crisis

If there was one file in which Conservatives could believe they were untouchable, it is immigration.

Having put one of their most capable operators at the helm, Jason Kenney, the Tories pulled off some of the most revolutionary changes to the immigration system since the days of Clifford Sifton: More and better immigrants, faster processing times and fakers and criminals swiftly weeded out and sent home.

is the largest per capita receiver of new immigrants in the entire world,” Stephen Harper told reporters as images of drowned Syrian toddler , who has Canadian family, were beamed around the world.

But with the Syrian refugee crisis highlighting the now-Byzantine process by which refugees are allowed across Canada’s borders, critics are saying there has been a hefty price to pay for the Tories’ immigration revolution.

And according to recent poll numbers, it’s the Syrian refugee crisis that has dropped the Conservatives to third place with a 26 per cent share of intended votes.

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“It’s our impression that refugees aren’t the government’s priority,” said Janet Dench, executive director with the Canadian Council for Refugees.

As Conservatives boast, Canada is indeed one of the most immigrant friendly countries in the world, accepting an annual immigrant intake equivalent to nearly one per cent of the population.

For the first six years of Conservative governance, Canada averaged 254,000 immigrants per year, the “highest sustained level of immigration in Canadian history,” said then-immigration minister Kenney in 2012.

And sure enough, the next two years would see another 519,427 newcomers — more than the population of Quebec City.

But while the immigration system has been massively streamlined for economic newcomers, Canada has simultaneously made it increasingly difficult for certain refugees. In fact, the massive system overhaul in 2012 is being blamed for the country’s inaction in addressing the Syrian crisis.

A centralized processing facility was established in Winnipeg to expedite applications for privately sponsored refugee claims. However, an internal report made public by an access to information request revealed that staffing shortages caused backlogs to reach “an unprecedented high.”

Authorities also listed 37 countries as being a “designated country of origin,” and enacted a different system for processing refugee claimants from those countries.

Enacted as part of an attempt to cut down on bogus claims, the 37 countries are considered to be free from persecution, and refugees from these “safe” countries are expedited and have no right of appeal.

However, the system also means a refugee from Syria applying to Canada from a temporary home in a “safe” country may see  the chance of acceptance plummet.

“They’ve just added enormously to the paperwork and the hurdles people have to go through,” said Dench.

And the evidence, say critics, is in the numbers.

Canada received 35,775 refugees in 2005, just before the Conservative election victory. By 2014, the number was 23,286 — a drop of nearly one third.

Most critical to Syrian refugees was the 2012 provision that G5s — refugees who have been sponsored by five or more Canadians — would need to be officially certified as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

And with tens of thousands of Syrians streaming into Turkey and Jordan, only a lucky few have been able to undergo the interview and screening process needed to obtain such a certification.

Indeed, it was this provision that caused the refugee application to be denied for the family of Mohammed Kurdi, the uncle of drowned toddler Alan Kurdi. Although Kurdi could prove that he would be taken care of by family in Canada, he could not obtain UNHCR certification.

It was returned to the applicant with a request for additional documentation, in this case, a confirmation of a refugee convention status as determined by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

“It was returned to the applicant with a request for additional documentation, in this case, a confirmation of a refugee convention status as determined by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,” said Immigration Minister Chris Alexander last week.

According to UNHCR, Canada does take in relatively high numbers of “resettled” refugees, having accepted 12,173 of them in 2013 — second only to the United States.

However, this number only refers to refugees who are being transferred from a asylum country to a permanent home.

When it comes to total refugees, UNHCR numbers show Canada ranks 41st globally in terms of per-capita refugees — trounced by countries such as Turkey and Jordan whose share of Syrian refugees equal double-digit proportions of their domestic population.

When gross domestic product and geographic size are ranked, Canada places 55th and 93rd, respectively.

National Post, with files from Postmedia and The Associated Press

About Tristin Hopper