As the number of refugees and displaced people worldwide reaches a record 65 million, debate continues over whether asylum seekers — especially LGBT people — from countries deemed to be safe, should be granted refugee status abroad.
Several countries in Europe have compiled "safe country of origin" lists, whereby anyone from those countries will likely to be sent home if they try to seek asylum in another country.
In North America, Canada has been relying heavily since 2013 on its safe country list to guide who should be blocked from obtaining refuge, a process the government argues is meant to ensure "genuine" refugees are resettled. And now, Canada is facing fresh criticisms for listing Mexico among its 42 "safe" nations, especially as the LGBT community there and people living with HIV continue to face rampant violence and discrimination.
A new report from the University of Toronto released Monday urges the Canadian government to immediately strike Mexico from the "designated country of origin" (DCO) list, concluding that Canada's inclusion of Mexico flouts its international human rights obligations towards those fleeing persecution. Most countries with safe lists do not include Mexico.
"When we asked people and experts in Mexico what they thought about it being on that safe country list, they all kind of laughed at just how wrong-headed that was," Kristin Marshall, co-author of the report, said in an interview. When it comes to safe country lists in general, Marshall said it's "just plain wrong to make a blanket statement about a country's safety."
Marshall and her colleagues interviewed a number of healthcare workers, human rights advocates, and members of the LGBT community in Mexico, and found that the country's health system blatantly discriminates against LGBT people and those living with HIV, and routinely denies them access to lifesaving treatments. On top of that, she heard stories about women with HIV being forcible sterilized, denied the right to information about HIV treatment and therapy, and domestic violence by their partners.
Experts told the researchers that transgender women in Mexico are the most vulnerable to physical, emotional and health risks, including HIV, as well as hate crimes and murders. In the town of Chiapas, for example, assailants spray-painted the homes of people with living with HIV so that other residents could "avoid and ostracize them."
The 54-page report comes a week before the Three Amigos summit, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will host Barack Obama and Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto in Ottawa.
While the US does not appear to have a such a list, it abides by especially restrictive practices when it comes to welcoming refugees.
The previous Canadian Conservative government announced in 2013 that Mexico — Canada's third largest trading partner — was a safe country that respects human rights, and therefore added it to the immigration department DCO list.
However, the current Liberal government campaigned on a promise to appoint a human rights panel to review the entire DCO system, but hasn't said exactly when that will happen. In July 2015, a Canadian federal court judge ruled that the DCO list was unconstitutional because it violates the rights of many asylum seekers by giving them far less time to complete their refugee applications, compared to asylum seekers from other countries not on the list, and "perpetuates a stereotype that refugee claimants from DCO countries are somehow queue-jumpers or 'bogus claimants.'" Earlier this year, the Liberal government announced it would not appeal that decision.
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Canada did not answer questions from VICE News about why Mexico remains on the DCO list and whether the immigration minister would remove it, but said in an email that the department "continuously monitors all designated countries of origin to determine whether conditions remain similar to those at the time they were designated."
And the department may "review of country conditions to determine if removal from the designated country of origin list is warranted," the spokesperson concluded.
In February, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) in Europe, released a report that found safe country procedures are more dangerous for LGBT people.
"Such measures shift the burden of proof from the authorities to the asylum seeker and accelerate the procedure, leaving very little time for LGBTI asylum seekers to come forth with the real motive of their flight," the report states. It adds that several "safe countries" on existing lists — such as Turkey — "actually criminalize sexual orientation or gender identity and apply long-term imprisonment to same-sex couples."
The group urges the European Commission, which is the executive body of the EU, and EU states to stop expanding safe country lists, unless the rights of LGBT refugees from those countries are explicitly taken into account.
Earlier this year, the European Commission put forward a controversial proposal to consolidate the lists due to inconsistencies among them.
However, the proposal has been slammed by critics as prejudicial, and the European Parliament adopted a report in March that stated LGBT people face high rates of abuse, even in so-called "safe" countries.
"Any initiative to fast-track asylum procedures, such as a 'safe country' list, increases the risk that those people in need, including LGBTI people, are not recognized," a spokesperson for the Intergroup on LGBTI Rights said at the time of the report at parliament.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne