Liberals granting more leeway to would be Venezuelan immigrants, refugees

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Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen makes an announcement of support for pre-arrival services at the YMCA in Toronto on Monday, January 14, 2019. A backlog of "legacy" claims filed by refugee applicants to Canada who have been waiting over seven years for a hearing to find out if they can remain in Canada will soon be cleared. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

OTTAWA:  The federal Liberals are easing immigration and refugee rules for Venezuelans amid their country’s deepening political and economic crisis, and ahead of a high-level meeting with the U.S. where the subject of democracy in the South American nation is on the agenda.

As many as four million Venezuelans are believed to have fled in the last four years, a migration of historic proportions in the region that has severely strained neighbouring countries hosting the majority of the displaced.

On Tuesday, the United Nations said the growing flight of Venezuelans has now “totally surpassed” Colombia’s capacity to respond, and called on countries to step up the amount of aid they are providing to the area.

Countries including Canada and the U.S. have been ratcheting up economic and political pressure on President Nicolas Maduro in a bid to force him aside and allow for a transition of power to the government of Juan Guaido, who is recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s hard line, however, has not been fully backed up by a corresponding softening of his approach on immigration, so far.

A decision to restrict asylum claims at the Mexico-U.S. border has cut off one major avenue for Venezuelans seeking sanctuary in the U.S., and efforts to place what amounts to a stay on deportations for Venezuelans have also failed.

But the Trump administration has allowed Venezuelans to use expired passports to apply for entry or extend existing visas, one of two steps Canada announced this week that would make it easier for Venezuelans to come or stay in this country.

The decision to permit the use of the expired documents came at the request of the Guaido government, which had asked countries around the world to recognize them because of the impossibility for Venezuelans to renew their documents with the collapse of the former government.

Orlando Viera-Blanco, Guaido’s representative in Canada, said that not allowing the use of the expired documents left Venezuelans trapped in an immigration limbo _ unable to renew or apply for work or study permits, or travel around the world.

The second Canadian change is a move to allow those whose refugee claims were rejected to argue the situation has changed in their home country since their claim was decided and that if they are forced to return, they will be at risk.

The policy change applies to those whose claims were rejected prior to Aug. 19. The most recent figures available suggest the numbers are not high; in the first six months of the year, 820 asylum claims from Venezuelans were accepted and just 95 rejected.

As well, Canada stopped deporting people back to Venezuela earlier this year.

Viera-Blanco said he hopes the Canadian government also starts increasing the number of visa applications they accept from Venezuelan nationals; statistics published earlier in the year suggest rejection rates are high.

But he said more important is for Canada to continue to play a leading role in finding a solution for the plight of the Venezuelan people.

He said he hopes this week’s sit down between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo focuses on finding a way forward.

“The situation is getting worse and worse,” he said.

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