Yes, Canada would be right to tighten its borders, particularly with respect to those who have been entering Canada illegally. Unfortunately, while the government is making noises that it wants to do so, there is little evidence that those measures will be effective.
Let’s begin with why it would make sense to toughen border controls. Canada’s highly successful postwar immigration policy, supported by an all-party political consensus and public opinion, has never been laissez-faire about who gets in. On the contrary. That admirable policy has always been premised on the idea that Canada decides who gets into the country and the selection process be carried out in a disciplined and orderly way.
Since the election of the Trudeau government in 2015, however, that supportive public consensus has been seriously undermined. First was the discovery that would-be immigrants could exploit a flaw in the law regarding people wishing to claim refugee status in Canada. The law is premised on the sensible notion that refugees should make their claim for status in the first safe country they arrive in. Canada, like the rest of the civilized world, sees the priority with refugees being their safety, not their ability to shop around for the country they would most like to live in.
Since the bulk of refugee claimants arriving in Canada did so via the United States, not directly from other countries, we had negotiated a Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with Washington. It ensured that refugee claimants attempting to enter Canada from the U.S. would be turned back on the grounds that the U.S., a country with a sound process for assessing refugee claims, is where their claim should be made.
Some clever person worked out that this rule could be avoided simply by crossing the border illegally, since there exists no mechanism under the STCA for returning refugee claimants who enter elsewhere than official border crossings.
The second thing that put the reigning consensus under strain was that the illegal border crossers started to arrive at a time when the prime minister wanted to distinguish himself from the anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from the Trump White House.
Trudeau duly said, in a tweet reported around the world, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith.…“. The predictable result was tens of thousands of people crossing the border illegally and presenting themselves as refugees when in fact a great many of them were simply queue-jumping economic migrants.
The government’s first response to criticism questioning the wisdom and propriety of this policy was to accuse its critics of racism and wanting Canada to abandon its commitment to fair treatment of refugees. This was questionable on several counts.
First, many of the critics were themselves new Canadians, understandably upset at a weakening of the integrity of an immigration system, which many of them patiently navigated to come to Canada.
Second, it implied that the current official government policy that turned refugee claimants back at official border crossings, was also racist and failed to uphold Canada’s refugee commitments, which was clearly nonsense.
Alarmed at the erosion in public confidence in the immigration system that their own complaisance and complacency helped engender, Ottawa is now trying to project an image of stern defender of the border, but so far it is image over substance.
The other step Ottawa has announced is an opening of talks with Washington aimed at changing the STCA so the U.S. must take back refugee claimants no matter where they enter Canada. This would be a real step in the direction of restoring the integrity of the immigration system but Washington’s motivation to help out is low, although that may change as the numbers of people entering the U.S. illegally from Canada is increasing.
Projected talks are a handy election talking point, but we are still far from fixing the damage that has been done to the integrity of the border, especially since the various recent government plans to increase enforcement and other capacities at the border are largely gathering dust. Canada would be right to tighten its borders; so far it has failed to do so.
Refugee claimants who cross the Canada-U.S. border irregularly do not reach that decision lightly. Upon doing so, they are arrested and temporarily detained until police establish their identity and ensure they aren’t a security threat. Possessions are restricted to those that they can carry. The route can be dangerous; frostbite has claimed fingers, and hypothermia has even claimed a life. After the refugee protection claim is launched, they remain in limbo for months or years without a guarantee they will be allowed to stay.
This is what refugee claimants coming through the U.S. weigh when they decide to seek Canada’s protection.
In spite of this, the federal government has decided to tighten its borders, further targeting refugee claimants who seek Canada’s protection by travelling through the U.S.
First, Canada will deny access to the independent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) — the cornerstone of our refugee status determination system — to people who have made prior claims for refugee protection in the U.S. (along with Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom).
Second, Canada is seeking to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement so refugee claimants who cross the border between official ports of entry will be forced back to the U.S.
To some, the idea of fleeing human rights violations in the U.S. is absurd. But that is the harsh reality for refugees and migrants in the U.S. Consider the discriminatory travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Child and family separation. Harsh detention practices. Removal of gender-based violence as a ground for protection. Axing presumptive release for pregnant women in immigration detention.
Recently, the Trump Administration released yet another cruel deterrence policy: denying bond hearings until refugee claims are finalized, which can take years. In patent evidence of its absurdity, the new rule was suspended for 90 days because detention facilities are already so stretched that they will not be able to manage the influx.
While Canada cannot change these policies, it certainly should demonstrate opposition by setting a better example. The alternative is a race to the bottom, wherein each country would seek to adopt the harshest policies as a deterrent to those seeking protection.
If we reject such an approach, we might nonetheless ask: can we afford it, and is it fair?
In the past two years, about 40,000 people have crossed the border irregularly. That is about 55 people per day. That influx does lead to an increased demand on resources, and the way we accommodate those needs is the subject of legitimate debate.
At the same time, it’s important to view the number in context. There are almost 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, almost a quarter of the country’s total population. Bangladesh is hosting about 1 million Rohingya refugees, 700,000 of whom have fled Myanmar since August 2017. Uganda is home to more than 1 million South Sudanese. Those countries are hosting exponentially greater numbers with far fewer resources. By comparison, Canada is largely exempt from the so-called global refugee crisis.
It’s trite to suggest Canadians value fairness. Fairness entails treating like cases alike, and yet politicians and pundits continue comparing immigrants and refugees, saying the latter need to “get in the right line” or disparaging them as “queue jumpers.”
In fact, there are different “lines” — one for those who wish to immigrate to Canada, and another for those seeking protection as refugees. The IRB decides whether refugee claimants have met the legal definition, and those who do not are subject to removal.
Canada’s proposed changes will establish an unfair, two-tier system. Some refugee claimants will have access to the independent IRB and an oral hearing, while others will be relegated to a process in which a government official decides their fate, with no legal right to an oral hearing. This makes the system less, not more, fair.
Tightening our borders is a knee-jerk reaction to a situation, largely caused by our neighbours to the south, at a time when the number of irregular crossings is in decline. Like all things that are not fully scrutinized and debated, it will do little to help and will cost the most to those asking Canada for nothing more than the right to be heard.