Laura Madokoro is an associate professor at Carleton University specializing in the history of migration.
In announcing an agreement that enables the Trudeau government to close down the unofficial border crossing at Roxham Road in Quebec, the governments of the United States and Canada are celebrating their efforts to manage migration. However, given historical and recent efforts to minimize responsibilities to migrants arriving at Canadian borders, it would be far more appropriate to worry that this is another attack on refugee rights.
The announced compromise, which involves both turning away refugees at unofficial points of entry and creating a special program to bring in 15,000 refugees from Central and South America, is bound to invite mixed responses. On the one hand, by maintaining the flawed Safe Third Country Agreement, which allows Canada to send refugee claimants back to the U.S., the governments of both countries are following worldwide trends. Signatories to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees are finding new and creative ways to minimize their obligations to refugee claimants. For example, the British government is now sending some refugee claimants to Rwanda instead of hearing their claims in the United Kingdom.
On the other hand, introducing a special program for Central and South American migrants might be seen as a positive; something designed to help refugees who are fleeing known dangers in Venezuela and elsewhere.
The problem is that to be effective, such programs need to be adequately resourced and designed with the best of intentions. In recent years, we have seen a marked difference in how the federal government has responded to refugee situations around the world. For example, the implementation of a special refugee resettlement program for Afghanistan has been slow. Many people, most notably Afghan translators with ties to Canada, have been made vulnerable as a result.
By contrast, the federal government responded swiftly to the Russian attack on Ukraine, developing an innovative response so that people could apply for a temporary visa to come to Canada. The program was implemented very quickly and people were arriving within weeks. The differences between the two programs are noteworthy and should be a cautionary tale for the new program that is being developed.
The other reason for caution is that the targeted move to reinforce border controls against the movement of certain people directly undermines the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This convention, though flawed, is the cornerstone of international law and offers some of the few legal protections to people who are forced to flee their homes. Under the convention, people have the right to seek asylum. Their claims have to be heard, and they cannot simply be turned away regardless of how “safe” other countries might be.
Crucially, Canada’s ambivalent relationship with the 1951 Convention is not new and dates back to its very creation. Mackenzie King’s government argued repeatedly for a convention that would be limited in scope and Louis St. Laurent’s government didn’t sign it in 1951. Successive federal governments refused to sign the convention for almost two decades, only signing in 1969. Officials worried that by signing, they would not be able to control migration in ways that they had previously. Remember that until 1967, Canada had explicit race-based immigration laws. The last thing the government wanted was refugees from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, or Africa presenting themselves for asylum when the broader immigration program still sought to exclude them.
To be clear, Canada’s history of engagement with refugee issues is one where the country has been far more willing and eager to help when that migration has been managed, when refugees could be selected and resettled from abroad, as was the case in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the late 1970s. The record is poor when it comes to people presenting themselves at the Canadian border for assistance. This was the case for the M.S. St. Louis, which carried Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and was turned away in 1939 (something for which the current Trudeau government has apologized).
The record has also been poor in more recent years. In 1987, then prime minister Brian Mulroney recalled Parliament for an emergency session after boats carrying refugees from Sri Lanka arrived off the east coast. In 1999, there was manifest fear when boats arrived from Fujian province in the People’s Republic of China. Even as people filed their legal claims to refuge, politicians undermined the possibility that they might be deserving of protection.
With this new initiative, the federal government is maintaining a long tradition of attempting to manage the world’s humanitarian needs from afar. This is not something to be celebrated. It is something to be very worried about.