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Visa restriction halting tide of Czech refugees, officials say

OTTAWA - A new policy imposing visa requirements on people travelling from the Czech Republic has proven effective - so much so that Canadian officials say they are no longer speaking with Czech authorities about reversing the policy.

OTTAWA - A new policy imposing visa requirements on people travelling from the Czech Republic has proven effective - so much so that Canadian officials say they are no longer speaking with Czech authorities about reversing the policy.

The number of refugee claims from Czech citizens was reduced to just three in the 30 days since July 16, compared to the 155 claims made in the two weeks prior to the policy taking effect.

"Canada has no plans to revisit the decision to impose a visa," Citizenship and Immigration Department spokesman Nicholas Fortier said Wednesday.

"The action has met the policy objective of significantly reducing the number of asylum claims," he said.

"That has relieved some of the pressure on the refugee system."

Czech government officials have demanded that the visa requirement be lifted as soon as possible.

In recent days, those officials have told media in Prague that there have been regular discussions with Canadian officials in the hope of negotiating an end to the requirement.

"We are in daily direct contact with the Canadians on the technical and expert level," Hynek Kmonicek, the Czech deputy foreign minister in charge of consular affairs told the daily Pravo on Saturday.

"The goal of these negotiations is to prepare clear, co-ordinated and concrete steps leading to the abolition of the visas," he said.

But as far as Canada is concerned, there have been no such talks, said Fortier.

"Canadian and Czech officials are in regular contact on a range of issues," he said.

"But officials are not engaged in negotiations or discussions on the visa issue, per se."

Czech and Canadian diplomats, along with officials from the European Commission, the EU's executive, met in late July in Brussels to talk about the restriction.

After the meeting, Commission spokesman Michele Cercone said the talks were "extremely constructive" and marked the beginning of "a process which we hope will lead to a quick solution."

But no formal talks on the visa issue have taken place since.

Commission officials have called the Canadian visa requirement unacceptable, but had indicated they would not recommend retaliatory measures so long as there was a chance for dialogue.

Czech authorities had hoped the European Union could review Canada's visa policy by as early as mid-September. But it could take up to 90 days for a report to be compiled, meaning the EU council may not see it until mid-to late-October.

Canada issued 2,500 visas to Czech citizens between July 14 and Aug. 7, approving 99.4 per cent of applicants. Only 15 applications were rejected.

A further 39 study permits were approved for Czech students entering Canada, with no applicants refused, as well as all 222 applications for work permits.

Canada hiked the cost of travel visas for Czech citizens on Aug. 4, to 50 euros from 45, but Fortier said that was a result of fluctuating exchange rates.

Prior to 2007, Czech nationals were previously required to have visas when visiting Canada.

But since the restriction was lifted, the number of Czechs filing refugee claims soared to roughly 3,000 last year, compared to just five in all of 2005 when the earlier visa rule was still in effect.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has accused some Czech citizens of abusing Canada's generous asylum system by jumping the immigration queue and entering Canada basically as economic migrants.

He said that on average, each refugee claim costs Canadian taxpayers $29,000.

Canada also imposed visa requirements on Mexican citizens.

 
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