Safety first in Canada’s mi­grant cri­sis

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION - Howard El­liott

“To those flee­ing per­se­cu­tion, ter­ror & war, Cana­di­ans will wel­come you, re­gard­less of your faith. Di­ver­sity is our strength.”

That’s Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, ad­mirably tweet­ing his sup­port for vul­ner­a­ble refugees in the wake of Don­ald Trump’s no­to­ri­ous ex­ec­u­tive or­der tar­get­ing peo­ple who ar­rive in the U.S. with­out sta­tus and, later, specif­i­cally peo­ple from seven mostly-Mus­lim na­tions.

Trudeau was do­ing the right thing. But he didn’t go far enough. Now, hun­dreds of sta­tus-less mi­grants are cross­ing the Cana­dian bor­der in hopes of refuge. In too many cases, they are not do­ing so safely or in an or­ga­nized way. Small com­mu­ni­ties like Emer­son, Man., and Hem­ming­ford, Que., are grap­pling with un­prece­dented de­mand for sup­port.

The mi­grants will all have to go through the ex­ist­ing screen­ing, ap­pli­ca­tion and ad­ju­di­ca­tion process. It’s back­logged at the best of times, so there are le­git­i­mate con­cerns about how it will deal with the work­load. In the mean­time, we should be con­cerned about the risk fac­ing th­ese asy­lum seek­ers. As the in­flux con­tin­ues, we need a way to op­ti­mize or­der and safety for all con­cerned, be­fore the worst hap­pens and peo­ple are se­ri­ously hurt (some have al­ready sus­tained se­ri­ous frost­bite) or killed.

A strat­egy is at hand. A na­tional pe­ti­tion driven by im­mi­gra­tion ex­perts and lawyers calls on the govern­ment to tem­po­rar­ily sus­pend the Safe Third Coun­try Agree­ment. Un­der the bi­lat­eral agree­ment signed in 2004, refugees are re­quired to claim asy­lum in the first coun­try they reach. They can­not then claim asy­lum in the sec­ond coun­try. So refugees com­ing through Cana­dian bor­der cross­ings from the Amer­i­can side have to be turned back, be­cause the U.S. is con­sid­ered a safe coun­try from which to ap­ply.

Whether or not the U.S. is still a safe coun­try, as many are now ar­gu­ing, is be­side the point. Sus­pend­ing the agree­ment for a mat­ter of months would al­low refugees to claim sta­tus at safe, se­cure and re­sourced bor­der cross­ings as op­posed to en­ter­ing through un­guarded cross­ings. The govern­ment needs to do this soon, be­fore a tragedy forces their hand.

This story is only be­gin­ning. The govern­ment needs to take steps to ad­e­quately re­source over­taxed sys­tems and staff. It needs to take ac­tion on Is­lam­o­pho­bia, as sug­gested by mo­tion M-103 de­bated in Par­lia­ment last week. (A side note: it’s en­cour­ag­ing that On­tario PC Leader Pa­trick Brown has said his party will join with those sup­port­ing the mo­tion and the work it pro­poses. Good for him for not fall­ing into lock­step with his fed­eral col­leagues who op­pose it.) But the first pri­or­ity should be safety and or­ga­ni­za­tion, and that is best served by sus­pend­ing the agree­ment while we come to grips with this new and chal­leng­ing re­al­ity.

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