Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending his government’s new tougher line on asylum seekers as the Liberals’ immigration message shifts further away from the calls for openness that defined his party’s 2015 campaign.
Refugee advocates who previously supported the Liberal government’s record are outraged and are preparing legal challenges over new immigration measures contained in this week’s omnibus budget bill.
The measures would potentially prevent asylum seekers who enter Canada on foot at unauthorized crossings from having access to a full refugee hearing by an independent tribunal. They would instead be referred to an immigration officer for faster processing, even though the proposed new system is raising human-rights concerns.
The new provisions may run up against a Supreme Court ruling from 1985 that laid the foundations of refugee law in Canada. That ruling, in a case known as Singh, said refugee claimants are entitled to an oral hearing where issues of credibility are at stake.
Individuals are choosing to enter Canada at points other than official border crossings because of a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement. Roughly 40,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada in this fashion over the past two years. The deal allows Canadian officials to immediately send asylum seekers back to the United States − but only if they arrive at official border points.
The Globe and Mail reported last month that Canada and the U.S. are working behind the scenes to update the agreement and address the loophole. Border Security Minister Bill Blair told The Globe in March that one option for updating the agreement would be to allow Canadian officials to take asylum seekers who cross at an unauthorized crossing to the nearest official border point where they could then be refused entry. It is not immediately clear if that proposal is connected to the legal changes in the budget bill.
The Liberal government’s new stand on refugees is in sharp contrast to the welcoming message that featured prominently during the 2015 election campaign, which coincided with the humanitarian crisis that flowed from the Syrian civil war.
Mr. Trudeau promised during that campaign to resettle 25,000 refugees from Syria, outdoing then-Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s pledge to resettle 10,000. The NDP said it would resettle more than 40,000 Syrian refugees within a year and a half.
Speaking on Parliament Hill Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau said the government’s latest measures are part of a broader effort to address issues at the Canada-U.S. border.
“We need to recognize that there are larger numbers now than before because of global instability in terms of refugees. That’s why we’re putting more resources and we’re also ensuring that the system is fair for everyone. That’s what Canadians expect,” he said.
However, statistics for RCMP interceptions of asylum seekers at unauthorized border crossings show crossings were down in January and February of 2019, for a total of 1,696, compared with the 3,082 interceptions during the same two-month period in 2018.
A spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office, Matt Pascuzzo, said Mr. Trudeau’s comment about larger numbers was in reference to global migration trends, and not unauthorized crossings into Canada.
Almost all of the unauthorized crossings into Canada have occurred at Quebec’s Roxham Road, south of Montreal. According to government documents tabled in Parliament last month, 45 households in the area will receive a combined $405,000 in compensation for the disruption.
Pollsters say that while Canadians supported accepting more refugees in 2015 – and even opened their own homes to Syrian refugees – the situation at the Canada-U.S. border is viewed differently and generates concern that the government is not fully in control.
Ipsos pollster Darrell Bricker and Angus Reid Institute pollster Shachi Kurl both said their polling shows Canadians have recently become less supportive of Canada’s approach to immigration, which has included an increase in annual targets.
“The Liberals are reacting to the politics of now, which are different from the politics of four years ago,” said Ms. Kurl, adding that accepting refugees “has gone from a political winner to a political liability.”
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel said in an e-mail that the changes fail to close the loophole, nor do they fix the problem at Roxham Road.
“After spending the last three years demonizing and personally attacking Conservatives over this issue, Justin Trudeau has effectively admitted that he has failed to defend the integrity of our asylum system," she said.
NDP MP Jenny Kwan said the changes should be removed from the budget bill.
“What Canada has done is absolutely unconscionable,” she said. “We now have the Liberal government joining hands with the Conservatives to vilify refugees.”
Lawyers and academics specializing in refugee law say the new measures are a direct challenge to basic standards of refugee law established in Canada.
“It’s certainly going to be subject to constitutional challenge,” Sean Rehaag, who teaches at Osgoode Hall at York University of Toronto, said in an interview.
The U.S., unlike Canada, does not currently accept asylum seekers who fled from gender-based violence, or from criminal gangs.
“I characterize it as Canada giving away its discretion to decide on its own whether someone is deserving of refugee protection,” Jamie Liew, who teaches at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, said in an interview.
Far from discouraging people from making an unauthorized border crossing, Prof. Liew said she worries that the provision could have the opposite effect as individuals seek to evade detection.
“It could mean we’re going to see an increasing amount of people taking very risky journeys and being exploited and abused by people who are trying to take advantage of the system,” she said.
The new provisions on unauthorized crossings outlined in the budget bill would not provide for a hearing or any process at all on a refugee claim for those from countries with which Canada has an information-sharing agreement on immigration and citizenship.
The Immigration Minister said this week that this refers to Canada’s Five Eyes intelligence allies: Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the United States.
Any hearing would be held at the back end – at what is known as a pre-removal risk assessment hearing, to decide whether it is safe to deport them to their country of citizenship.
And that form of hearing could run afoul of the Singh ruling, in that the court said claimants have a right to procedural fairness, such as making their case to an independent decision-maker.
Canada, Prof. Rehaag says, created the Immigration and Refugee Board to provide for fair hearings, insulated from political interference.
Lorne Waldman, executive member of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said the changes in the budget bill curtail human rights, will not be effective and are clearly driven by political concerns.
“There’s no question, from my point of view, that it’s politics,” he said.