Keep­ing refugee flood from U.S. in per­spec­tive

Num­bers are up from last year but ac­tu­ally down from 2008. This is mi­nor — so far

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - THOMAS WALKOM Thomas Walkom ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers.

The sto­ry­line de­tail­ing the flood of refugees cross­ing into Canada to es­cape Don­ald Trump should be kept in per­spec­tive.

First, it is not a flood. Sec­ond, not all of those who claim to be refugees will nec­es­sar­ily be granted that sta­tus. Third, it is not yet clear that all or even most are flee­ing the new U.S. pres­i­dent.

The in­di­vid­ual tales of those strug­gling through snow and frigid tem­per­a­tures to find asy­lum in Canada are grip­ping. But the num­bers re­main small.

Since the be­gin­ning of the year, roughly 140 peo­ple have crossed il­le­gally into Man­i­toba — one of two prov­inces that have cap­tured pub­lic at­ten­tion. About 450 more have crossed il­le­gally into Que­bec, where the bor­der is equally por­ous.

The num­bers are up from last year but, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, down from 2008.

In any case, com­pared to Canada’s to­tal planned refugee in­take this year of 40,000, this is still mi­nor — so far.

Those cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally are us­ing a loop­hole in the Safe Third Coun­try agree­ment be­tween Canada and the U.S. That 2004 pact, ne­go­ti­ated in large part at Canada’s be­hest, pre­vents asy­lum seek­ers al­ready in the U.S. from mak­ing refugee claims at the Cana­dian bor­der — and vice versa.

But those who man­age to some­how make it past the bor­der can make a claim for asy­lum — which is what those cross­ing il­le­gally into Man­i­toba and Que­bec are do­ing.

Not all who ap­ply for refugee sta­tus get it. Claimants must be able to suc­cess­fully make the case they would face per­se­cu­tion if they re­turned to their coun­try of ori­gin.

Legally, it’s not enough to be poor and des­per­ate. The merely poor and des­per­ate must ap­ply for res­i­dency in Canada through the stan­dard im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem. They may be very nice peo­ple. But un­less they face per­se­cu­tion at home, they are not con­sid­ered refugees un­der the law.

In short, we don’t yet know how many of the roughly 600 peo­ple who have crossed into Man­i­toba and Que­bec since Jan. 1 will be ac­cepted as refugees. Those who are not will be sub­ject to de­por­ta­tion back to their home coun­tries.

It’s hard to es­ti­mate how much of the bump in refugee claims from non-Amer­i­cans liv­ing in the U.S. is at­trib­ut­able to Trump. His anti-Mus­lim, anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric cer­tainly has made many ner­vous. That’s the con­clu­sion of Jean-Ni­co­las Beuze, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the United Na­tions refugee agency who spent a day last week watch­ing be­tween 50 and 70 mi­grants il­le­gally cross into Que­bec.

Beuze told Cana­dian Press that most of those he spoke to had papers al­low­ing them to live legally in the U.S. But many fig­ured their asy­lum claims would have a bet­ter chance in Canada.

Still, not all of this is nec­es­sar­ily at­trib­ut­able to Trump. The U.S. refugee sys­tem has al­ways been more politi­cized than that of Canada — which is one rea­son why so many refugee ad­vo­cates mis­trust the Safe Third Coun­try agree­ment.

In the 1980s, for in­stance Cen­tral Amer­i­cans flee­ing death squads tied to Wash­ing­ton had lit­tle chance of win­ning refugee sta­tus in the U.S. The odds were al­ways bet­ter in Canada.

Some be­lieve that sim­i­lar dif­fer­ences still ex­ist. One refugee claimant from Ghana, who lost fingers to frost­bite dur­ing his har­row­ing Christmas Eve jour­ney across the Man­i­toba bor­der last year, told CBC Ra­dio he made the trek be­cause his refugee claim had been de­nied in the U.S. — well be­fore Trump be­came pres­i­dent.

We shall see what hap­pens as Trump con­tin­ues to roll out his agenda.

So far, Ot­tawa has re­jected calls to for­mally sus­pend the Safe Third Coun­try agree­ment in or­der to reg­u­lar­ize the flow of refugee claimants en­ter­ing Canada from the U.S.

But in Que­bec, it has ef­fec­tively done just that, by es­tab­lish­ing unof­fi­cial en­try points along the fron­tier. The would-be refugees know ex­actly where to cross the bor­der into Que­bec. The RCMP are there wait­ing to ar­rest them and trans­port them to bor­der of­fi­cials so they can make their for­mal asy­lum claims.

Ev­ery­one is po­lite. Ev­ery­thing is or­derly. The Moun­ties some­times help with the mi­grants’ lug­gage.

It is like a play where all know their parts. Very Cana­dian.


Fam­ily mem­bers from So­ma­lia are helped into Canada by RCMP of­fi­cers along the U.S.-Canada bor­der near Hem­ming­ford, Que.

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