Skip to main content

Lloyd Axworthy is a former Canadian Foreign Minister and is Chair of the World Refugee Council. Allan Rock is a former Attorney-General of Canada and is President Emeritus of the University of Ottawa.

We hear a lot about asylum seekers these days, as Ottawa and the provinces exchange angry words about whether to allow them into the country, and whose responsibility they are once here. Who are they? Are they illegal, or just irregular? Can we turn them away?

In fact, those seeking asylum are at the very heart of the global refugee system. Countries that signed on to the 1951 Refugee Convention (and almost all have done so) are obligated to accept those unable to return to their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution. The country to which the person flees, however, is entitled to test the validity of that claim.

In Canada, that evaluation is done by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). Until the IRB’s evaluation is complete, the fleeing person who arrives at our border is called an asylum seeker or refugee claimant. The majority arrive in Canada at official ports of entry and claim protection at the border or an inland immigration office. They are processed by their date of claim, and must wait in that queue accordingly. This is true for those that arrive both regularly and irregularly.

This approach allows states to control their borders and prevent abuse. It prevents queue jumping or otherwise gaming the system, while protecting refugees from the threat they face back home.

Asylum seekers are not illegal, regardless of their manner of arrival. They are asserting a fundamental legal right. The arrival of some may be irregular in the sense that they may not cross our border at an official point of entry. But irregular or not, if they establish a legitimate claim for refuge, they are entitled to our protection. To deny it is to reject a humanitarian principle that has endured since time immemorial.

The right to asylum is one of the oldest of human rights, and one of the original expressions of our shared humanity.

In ancient Greek writings, we find this admonition: "When outsiders flee to a new place in desperate need, they will not be turned away."

The Hebrew Bible speaks of six cities of refuge, open to those with no other options. Romulus, the founder of Rome, extended safe haven, creating a temple of asylum.

These ancient principles no doubt inspired the 1951 Refugee Convention. Sadly, international co-operation – the convention’s cornerstone and so essential to the refugee system’s success – has given way in too many places to xenophobia and strident nationalism. Anti-immigrant political parties are on the rise everywhere, appealing to the worst impulses of the human spirit.

As we have seen in the United States, the tide is turning against acknowledging the human rights of asylum seekers and the need to address their human security. Some governments are renouncing their treaty commitments and shutting their doors.

We cannot let that happen in Canada. We must hold fast to our convictions.

We can begin by maintaining a sense of perspective. In July, some 1,634 individuals crossed our border irregularly. They asked for protection and submitted themselves peacefully to our orderly evaluation process.

Consider that number in a broader context.

Last month, we visited Colombia, which is now hosting over a million Venezuelans who have fled their country. Another 5,000 cross the border into Colombia daily, straining its capacity to provide support and services. And yet they come, welcomed by Colombia and its generous people.

In February, we were in Uganda, which has welcomed a million South Sudanese who have fled for their lives from their wartorn country.

The same remarkable generosity has been shown in Jordan and Lebanon for Syrian refugees, and in Bangladesh for the Rohingyas.

These inspiring examples are all among the developing countries of the Global South. Countries with far less capacity are doing far more than Canada in response to pleas by the desperate and dispossessed for asylum.

It’s time for Canadians to move past the rhetoric, and return to reality. We can manage the flow of asylum seekers to our door. We need not fear for our future, for our standard of living or for our security because of the relative handful who have appeared. Indeed, the IRB reports that fewer than half of refugee claims made by “irregular entrants” from the beginning of 2017 to March, 2018, were accepted.

Nor need we fear for the rule of law, or the orderly control of our borders: Our laws are being respected, and the legitimacy of each claim is being determined in a process prescribed by Canadian law.

If there is anything to fear, it is that by overreacting to these events, by engaging in the provocative rhetoric we hear elsewhere, by letting the issue be used as a wedge in partisan debate, we will lose something of vital importance to us: namely, the decency and humanity and the commitment to human rights that have been the cornerstones of our national immigration policy, and indeed of our public debate, for generations.

So let’s keep our perspective. And let’s remember when we see the term asylum seeker, that is a fellow human being in terrible distress relying on an ancient right that we deny at great peril to our own humanity.