On the asy­lum seek­ers file, is Trudeau up to the task?

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - OPINION - KON­RAD YAKABUSKI

Toronto Lib­eral MP John McKay of­fered a damn­ing as­sess­ment this week of his govern­ment’s han­dling of the in­flux of asy­lum seek­ers at un­of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ings, as Prime Min­ster Justin Trudeau’s cau­cus met to pre­pare for the fall par­lia­men­tary ses­sion that be­gins Mon­day.

“Peo­ple have come to the con­clu­sion that these peo­ple are not refugees and they should be re­turned, sooner rather than later,” Mr. McKay told the Cana­dian Press. “The only fair thing for ev­ery­body is to process them quickly and I think that’s where the govern­ment’s weak­ness is.”

More than half of the res­i­dents of Mr. McKay’ s Scar­bor­ough-Guild wood rid­ing were born out­side of Canada. They are, for the most part, im­mi­grants who came to this coun­try through reg­u­lar chan­nels. And they don’t like thou­sands of asy­lum claimants “com­ing through the back door,” Mr. McKay said.

When even those who have ben­e­fited from Canada’s ope­n­arms ap­proach to new­com­ers be­gin to lose faith in the in­tegrity of our im­mi­gra­tion and refugee sys­tem, we’ve got a prob­lem. While that’s be­come ev­i­dent to or­di­nary MPs, Mr. Trudeau and front-line cabi­net min­is­ters have yet to demon­strate they un­der­stand the con­cerns of av­er­age Cana­di­ans about in­com­ers thought to be gam­ing the sys­tem.

Barely 15 per cent of the al­most 28,000 peo­ple who made asy­lum claims at un­of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ings in Que­bec be­tween early 2017 and mid-2018 have had a first hear­ing be­fore the Im­mi­gra­tion RefugeeBoard (IRB), ac­cord­ingto the most re­cent IRB data. And only 45 per cent of the 4,200 claimants who have had a hear­ing have been deemed le­git­i­mate ref- ugees by the tri­bunal.

The IRB faces an over all back­log of some 57,000 claimants await­ing a first hear­ing, while an­other 5,300 cases are tied up in the ap­peals process. Re­jected claimants are sup­posed to leave the coun­try, but only a hand­ful have been de­ported. Hun­dreds, per­haps thou­sands, never will be.

The Lib­er­als are pro­vid­ing an ex­tra $72-mil­lion over two years to en­able the IRB to hire more peo­ple to process and hear the cases of the asy­lum seek­ers who’ve en­tered Canada at un­of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ings since 2017. Bor­der Se­cu­rity Min­is­ter Bill Blair in­sists the ex­tra fund­ing will be enough to re­duce the now 20month wait for a first hear­ing. The IRB dis­agrees.

The Lib­er­als have lashed out at any­one who de­clares this a cri­sis. But by their own lax­ness, they have turned what should have been a man­age­able sit­u­a­tion into an un­man­age­able one that is start­ing to make Cana­di­ans un­easy. Imag­ine where we’d be now if pro­jec­tions for an even big­ger sum­mer surge in asy­lum seek­ers this year had ac­tu­ally proved ac­cu­rate?

As it is, the On­tario and Que­bec gov­ern­ments are dol­ing out hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars a year in so­cial as­sis­tance pay­ments to refugee claimants await­ing a hear­ing, and mil­lions more school­ing their chil­dren, while Ot­tawa steps up to cover health­care and le­gal aid costs. The longer the back­log and wait time for a hear­ing, the higher the bill for tax­pay­ers. Speedy pro­cess­ing of refugee claims could cut these costs ex­po­nen­tially.

Alas, at­tempts to cre­ate a fast, fair and fi­nal refugee pro­cess­ing sys­tem have proved elu­sive. The fed­eral govern­ment has over- hauled the refugee sys­tem twice since 2002 to deal with a grow­ing back­log. In 2012, then-Con­ser­va­tive im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Ja­son Ken­ney moved to deal with an in­crease in what he called “un­founded refugees” from 23 so­called “safe” coun­tries by fast­track­ing their claims and deny­ing them the right to ap­peal if their claims were re­jected. In 2015, the Fed­eral Court deemed re­mov­ing the right to ap­peal was un­con­sti­tu­tional.

A new set of prob­lems emerged with the elec­tion of U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, as Haitian and Nige­rian asy­lum seek­ers en­ter­ing Canada at an un­of­fi­cial point of cross­ing in Que­bec ex­posed a flaw in the 2002 Canada-U.S. Safe Third Coun­try Agree­ment. It would ap­pear to be un­re­al­is­tic to ex­pect a rene­go­ti­a­tion of that agree­ment as long as Mr. Trump re­mains in the White House. And once he leaves, the prob­lem may sim­ply fade away any­way.

Un­til then, how­ever, Mr. Trudeau needs to show Cana­di­ans he takes their con­cerns se­ri­ously. He must strike a bal­ance be­tween Canada’s obli­ga­tion to pro­vide due process to those seek­ing asy­lum from per­se­cu­tion in their home coun­try, and his duty to Cana­di­ans to uphold the in­tegrity of our im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.

This starts with dis­pens­ing with the glib or sanc­ti­mo­nious tweets about our open bor­der. But more sub­stan­tively, it will re­quire reforming our refugee sys­tem to im­prove its ef­fi­ciency. The govern­ment has a re­port in hand from for­mer deputy im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Neil Yeates on how to do this. But Mr. Trudeau is wary of look­ing too right-wing if he tight­ens up the sys­tem.

Mr. McKay’s con­stituents could give him an ear­ful.


A fam­ily is con­fronted by RCMP of­fi­cers as they cross the U.S.-Canada bor­der. The Lib­er­als are pro­vid­ing $72-mil­lion to en­able more hires with the Im­mi­gra­tion Refugee Board to process and hear the cases of asy­lum seek­ers who’ve en­tered Canada at un­of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ings.


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