Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is defending the decision to impose visa requirements for Czech and Mexican nationals after Canadian businesses and foreign diplomats criticized the move.

European Union spokesperson Michele Cercone said the European Commission "regrets" Ottawa's decision and would be speaking with Canadian officials in short order, though no immediate action was planned.

"We expect the measures introduced by Canada to be temporary, and we hope that full visa-free travel between the EU and Canada is re-established soon," Cercone said in Brussels on Tuesday.

Kenney said he spoke with the acting EU ambassador on Monday and downplayed the possibility of any EU visa restrictions for Canadians. He noted Canada still requires visas from two EU member states.

"I met with (the EU's) acting ambassador yesterday and they gave no indication of such a measure," he told CTV News Channel Tuesday afternoon.

Kenney said Canada lifted visa restrictions on seven EU countries last year and only the Czech Republic caused any problems.

He said the refugee claims from Czechs make no sense because they could easily move to "26 other Western democracies in the European Union."

"Canada has a generous, open immigration system -- one of the most generous in the world -- but it can only exist if we maintain the integrity of the system," he said. "We can't allow the systematic abuse of people who are basically coming to Canada as economic migrants, jumping the queue, by going through the backdoor of the asylum system."

Earlier, Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer said he would ask the European Union to pressure Canada to drop the visa requirement for visiting Czech citizens. He also said the decision was wrong and one-sided.

And the Czech government threatened to impose visa restrictions on Canadians, while recalling its ambassador to Canada in protest.

Kenney announced the visa changes on Monday, which also apply to Mexican nationals. The new rules came into effect today.

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

But Ottawa says too many Czech citizens are seeking asylum in Canada and the government believes many such claims are unwarranted.

"In addition to creating significant delays and spiraling new costs in our refugee program the sheer volume of these claims is undermining our ability to help people fleeing real persecution," Kenney said in a news release on Monday.

The Mexican government has said it "regrets the decision by the government of Canada."

In Vancouver, tourism operators are concerned that the visa restrictions may reduce the 89,000 Mexican tourists coming to the city each year -- about half of the total annual number of Mexican visitors to Canada.

Some businesses have complained that there was no advance warning but Kenney argues that would have been counterproductive, leading to a spike in refugee claims.

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

High numbers of refugee claims

As an example, Czech nationals filed about 3,000 refugee claims last year, compared to only five in all of 2005 when the visa rule was still in effect.

Many of the Czech people seeking asylum in Canada are of Roma descent, a group that has long faced discrimination and persecution in Europe.

Fischer, the Czech prime minister, said he was concerned that the Roma might end up being blamed for the visa restriction.

In Prague, Canada's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Michael Calcott, said the public outcry over the visa issue has been significant.

"I think it's fair to say it's huge," Calcott told CTV News Channel during a phone interview on Tuesday morning. "It's on every television program, radio program, on the front of virtually every newspaper in the country. It's a very emotional issue for Czechs."

But Calcott said that more than half of the thousands of refugee claims filed by Czech citizens in recent months had eventually been either abandoned or withdrawn.

"That means that over 50 per cent of the claimants probably did not have a basis for their original refugee claim," he said.

In the case of Mexico, refugee claims have tripled since 2005, topping more than 9,400 such claims in 2008. They now make up one-quarter of all Canadian refugee claims.

Visas a 'last resort'

Critics say the government is going too far by requiring visas for both countries.

Immigration lawyer Ravi Jain said a visa is a "blunt instrument" that can strain relations between co-operative nations, like the Czech Republic and NAFTA-member Mexico.

"I think a visa is something that you impose on a country as a measure of last resort," Jain told CTV's Canada AM on Monday morning.

He said that if the government truly wanted to help out legitimate claimants - and weed out the illegitimate ones -- it should provide more support for them, rather than making it harder for them to enter the country.

"If that was a genuine concern by the government, why didn't they appoint refugee board members and refugee judges when they could have?" Jain asked.

The government could also have targeted immigration consultants who often encourage immigrants to claim refugee status illegitimately, he said.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press