OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada plans to toughen its refugee laws to filter out fake claims from "safe" countries like Hungary, which it says are clogging up the system and wasting taxpayer money.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney presented legislation on Thursday that would allow faster processing - and possibly faster deportation - of asylum seekers from a list of countries Ottawa deems to be safe for vulnerable groups.
"Our government is very concerned about the recent increase in refugee claims from democratic countries that respect human rights," Kenney told reporters in Ottawa.
"The growing number of bogus claims from European Union democracies is only exacerbating the problem," he said.
Canada's longstanding humanitarian tradition has made it a preferred haven for people fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries. The new measure is part of a broader effort by the Conservative government to take a more targeted approach to accepting newcomers and to clear up a costly backlog.
The law, which critics say is an attack on human rights, appears to target the large influx of claims from Hungary by Roma gypsies, the largest ethnic minority in Europe.
Kenney said that while many Roma face difficulties at home, they are not persecuted by the state. He said many came to Canada to abuse its "generous" welfare system.
"To be perfectly honest with you, we have people showing up at ... the airport where they make their asylum claim, asking where they can get their check from, their welfare check," he said, referring to the growing Roma population.
Most Roma migrants originate from Central and Eastern Europe, particularly Romania, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic, where the EU says they still face prejudice.
Last year, Canada received 4,500 refugee claims from Hungarians, up from 2,300 in 2010, according to the government's figures. This is far more than claims from any other country.
United Nations data shows the second most preferred country for Hungarian asylum seekers in 2010 was Belgium with just 45 cases, followed by the United States with 32.
Over 95 percent of the refugee applications in Canada from the European Union were unsuccessful last year.
The law gives the minister the power to place countries on a "safe" list, based on criteria such as judicial independence and democratic rights, but also based on the rejection rate for refugee claims from there.
A previous law, passed in 2010 but not yet enacted, assigned that job to a committee of human rights experts.
Failed refugee claimants will no longer be able to appeal the decision, and must wait one year before making a plea to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds. In the meantime, they can be deported.
Kenney said this would cut the processing time for claimants from safe countries to 45 days from almost 200 days.
The opposition New Democrats attacked the government for stripping away the right of appeal and placing too much power in the hands of the minister to "hand pick" countries and claimants.
"The right to an appeal is a fundamental safeguard in a country ruled by law," said NDP legislator Don Davies.
Reporting By Louise Egan; editing by Rob Wilson