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A marker identifying the border between Canada and the U.S. stands near workers demolishing the temporary installation for refugee claimants at Roxham Road on Sept. 25, in St. Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Michael Barutciski is a faculty member of York University’s Glendon College. He teaches law and policy with a focus on migration issues.

In March, Washington and Ottawa agreed to close Roxham Road, the small alley in Quebec through which thousands of asylum seekers have entered Canada from the United States, bypassing customs. Nearly 40,000 people entered Canada through Roxham Road in 2022; there were a record 91,710 claimants last year.

So despite the closing, why has Canada already processed more than 80,000 applications from asylum seekers so far this year?

Part of the answer, it appears, is that the international airports in Montreal and Toronto have become magnets for asylum claimants. According to Radio-Canada, immigration authorities quietly implemented a new policy to expedite temporary visa processing, including removing the need for proof that applicants will leave Canada at the end of their stay. This has reportedly made it easier for people who would normally have difficulty obtaining tourist visas to enter and then claim asylum upon arrival. This contrasts with decades-long policy characterized by restrictive visa rules and airline sanctions for travellers boarding with false documents.

Recently published statistics also show that immigration offices in Ontario and Quebec are receiving many inland claimants: migrants who entered Canada either legally or illegally, and then only afterward applied for asylum. This had already been happening when Roxham Road was open; in 2022, Canada received another 50,000 asylum claims from migrants who were already within the country. So far this year, the situation is similar.

The problem is that the government has not been forthcoming about these numbers or the policy that potentially led to them. There is no public data showing how many overstayed their visa-prescribed visits, or how many circumvented the recently tightened Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. And this lack of transparency could leave Canadians to wonder if Ottawa is hiding that it has shifted to a relatively open-border approach.

Asylum seekers want to come to Canada because it is a rich country that offers unparalleled treatment, including generous benefits and almost-guaranteed citizenship for those granted protection; in many other regions, they often barely receive adequate food and shelter, and exist precariously at the whim of host governments. But interestingly, the influx of claimants in Canada is not necessarily related to global trends. Even though Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan are the top source countries for migrants in need of international protection, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board reports that our top source this year is Mexico; India is our fifth-highest source.

Unlike the U.S., Canada has not required visas for Mexicans since 2016, though we are well beyond the numbers that previously triggered the reimposition of visa requirements; Washington has asked Ottawa to reinstate them, to prevent entry to the U.S. from its northern border. And despite current diplomatic tensions with India, it has been our top source country for accepted permanent residents and temporary students – so it is odd that it is also a leading country of origin for asylum claimants.

Neither Mexico nor India is embroiled in political upheaval or armed conflict. So why are these among our top source countries?

A distinct vision of asylum policy appears to be emerging from the Trudeau Liberals: one that is generous, in allowing people from less privileged countries to enter Canada legally as a way of regularizing migration. The approach could also be seen as practical, in that it contributes to our demographic expansion by welcoming particularly determined individuals who would otherwise not be admitted under standard immigration streams. And it is politically attractive for humanitarian self-promotion.

But it remains to be seen whether an anxious public is ready to normalize yearly asylum claims that could number in the six digits. While reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate response to record numbers of asylum claims, a healthy liberal democracy will try to balance the basic dignity of asylum seekers and the legitimate interests of the host population. But it has become difficult in Canada to have honest discussions about our commitments. If the federal government is implementing policy changes on visa issuance, then it needs to be upfront about it, given the implications for resource planning, including at the provincial and municipal levels as well as among grassroots refugee organizations.

Canada’s immigration system has worked to date because it is highly controlled and focused on selecting migrants that advance the country’s needs. It is not intended to promote an ideological world view that believes there is global injustice resulting from a supposed birthright lottery that limits poor migrants from travelling freely. To maintain the country’s pro-immigration consensus in the real world, however, our leaders cannot view asylum in such a blue-sky way. But at the very minimum, they need to give us the information we need to have a real debate.

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