Canadian ambassador: jump in asylum claims “a concern”

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It has only been five months since Ottawa dropped visa requirements for Czechs, but since then Canada has seen a marked jump in asylum applications by Romanies from the Czech Republic. On Wednesday, the Toronto Star reported that more than 100 claims had been put forward since November and there is now concern a rise in applications could cross a key threshold in 2008. Under such circumstances, Canada might reassess its visa policy and reintroduce travel restrictions for Czechs.

Eleven years ago Canada saw a major influx of some 4,000 Czech Roma seeking political asylum: a programme at the time by private broadcaster TV Nova was one of the first to highlight (some say exacerbate) the situation, which continued well into the summer of 1997. Images of Romanies departing for Canada flooded Czech homes and eventually the situation became untenable, and Ottawa re-imposed visas. The restriction for Czechs was only dropped last November. Five months later, Canadian daily the Toronto Star has reported that visa-free relations could again be under threat, saying that restrictions could be reintroduced by Canada if the number of Czech asylum applications continues to grow. A little earlier I spoke to the Canadian Ambassador to Prague Michael Calcott:

“When the visa was lifted we certainly informed Czech officials of the various criteria that we use regarding re-imposition and that involves abuses of asylum claims that is definitely one of them. I know that the Czech government has been very sensitive to this issue and has been watching very closely the number of claims that have been made. It’s not the only issue that we look at and I would refer back to when we were looking to first lifting the visa we had a number of criteria that we used that we reviewed constantly to assess if the Czech Republic to be ready.”

“Those issues include the security of documentation, criminality issues, possible deterioration in democratic processes, and so on. Asylum claims are just one of the criteria: while increases in refugee claims are a concern, they are just one factor which would decide whether we needed to re-impose a visa requirement on Czech citizens.”

The Toronto Star reported that if the figure of Czech claims reached 580 (a figure more or less confirmed by the ambassador, 2-percent of all asylum claims received by Canada annually) that could tip the scale towards reintroducing visas, although as Ambassador Calcott stressed that would not be the only factor. As for the Czech Republic, the country is not in the same position it was a decade ago, when Czech Romanies applied for asylum en masse.

“The situation is ‘incomparable’ in the sense of the historic changes: membership of the EU, membership in the Schengen zone, in NATO. The Czech Republic is indeed a very different country than it was when we re-imposed back in the ‘90s. These factors are part of what we examine. So while I am not going to belittle the number of refugee claims as a factor that we look at, we have to put it in context with democratic processes which are now in place, a human rights record which is excellent and other factors like that.”