Winfried Kretschmann, the minister-president of the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg, was rueful during an editorial board meeting at The Globe and Mail this week. Asked to explain how a racist anti-immigration party won 15.1 per cent of the vote in a 2016 state election, he admitted it was difficult to understand.
Baden-Wurttemberg, after all, is one of the economic powerhouses of Germany. A major car-manufacturing region, it has full employment, a strong middle class, low crime and a wealth of new public infrastructure. The rise of a party of nativist malcontents was an anomaly, given these factors alone.
But another factor, of course, was the massive influx of asylum seekers into Germany in 2015, and the ongoing political fallout from that. If Mr. Kretschmann had a regret about 2015, it was that Germany and the European Union failed to make a clear distinction between legitimate refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern countries and economic migrants from Balkan countries, both of whom flowed into Germany in a single stream.
People long for a strong government and to feel safe, he said. A sudden and large influx of asylum-seekers can provoke uncertainty, even among well-meaning and compassionate citizens. He implied that governments make a mistake when they fail to manage people’s fears, however overblown or ill-begotten, about the border.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not manage those fears in Canada. He dismisses them. Speaking recently about Canada’s border issue, he said, "The fact is we have a situation where there are irregular arrivals coming across our border into Canada. The fact is also we are processing every every single one of those irregular arrivals in a way that is 100-per-cent consistent with our immigration system. People who are trying to make this sound like a crisis are playing exactly the politics of fear and intolerance with which Canadians, and I certainly among them, will have no truck.”
Mr. Trudeau doesn’t benefit from Mr. Kretschmann’s hindsight, but he should learn from it. A perpetual stream of people crossing the border illegally, only half of whom appear to be legitimate refugee claimants, could erode some Canadians' faith in the immigration system.
And yet there is no evidence Ottawa has anything in the works that will reassure Canadians that this is not the new normal. We agree that the influx of 30,000 asylum seekers in the past 18 months is not a crisis, per se. But, as we said in an editorial earlier this week, Ottawa’s response has been reactive rather than forward-thinking.
For instance, its hiring of 64 new adjudicators to speed up the processing of asylum seekers appears to be window-dressing. The wait time has jumped from 14 months to 20 months in two years. The Immigration and Refugee Board, which oversees the refugee-determination system, says the extra bodies will, at best, only slow the increase in wait times.
This is key. A refugee lawyer quoted in The Globe says the long wait times are a "magnet” for illegitimate asylum claimants, because they know they will get to stay in Canada for as many as two years until their case is fully heard.
If Ottawa wants to address this issue seriously, it will have to hire many more adjudicators. Or, alternately, it could do what Mr. Kretschmann wishes Germany and the EU had done, and find ways to more quickly separate true refugees from economic migrants in the asylum-seeking queue.
That won’t be easy, since every person who makes a refugee claim in Canada is legally entitled to an oral hearing. As well, courts in Canada have repeatedly protected the rights of refugee claimants, including those coming from countries deemed to be safe.
But there must be a way to find a compromise between respecting those rights while giving the government the ability to limit abuses of the refugee system and to show determination in controlling our borders. For instance, could Ottawa pass legislation that gives it the discretion to deny appeals to people whose refugee claims are refused, and who didn’t come into the country at a legal port of entry?
At the very least, the government needs to signal that it is looking at long-term solutions. What Mr. Trudeau fails to understand, and politicians in Germany have come to rue, is that dismissing concerns about border security is unwise. The Prime Minister needs to demonstrate that he is willing to act decisively and take away the incentives that have led to this moment.