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

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-Guildwood 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.

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When even those who have benefited from Canada’s open-arms 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 Refugee Board, according to the most recent IRB data. And only 45 per cent of the 4,200 claimants who have had a hearing have been deemed legitimate refugees 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 20-month 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 health-care and legal aid costs. The longer the backlog and wait time for 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 overhauled 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 so-called “safe” countries by fast-tracking 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.

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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.

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