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Politics Trudeau government’s tougher line on asylum seekers a ‘dramatic shift’ in policy, says Amnesty International

Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Dec.13, 2018.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Amnesty International is sounding the alarm over the Trudeau government’s tougher line on asylum seekers, saying Canada risks its global reputation as a welcoming place for refugees and would become another country to close its border to the world’s most vulnerable if it changed its asylum policy.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International’s Americas director, is in Ottawa this week meeting with senior government officials, including Border Security Minister Bill Blair, to discuss the surge in asylum seekers at the Canada-U.S. land border and other human-rights issues in the hemisphere. She said the NGO is worried about the Trudeau government’s shift in refugee policy as it looks to stem the flow of asylum seekers between official points of entry.

“It would be very concerning that a country like Canada, particularly … the government of Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau, makes this kind of dramatic shift into becoming a more restrictive, conservative policy that is denying the rights of people to seek asylum in Canada,” Ms. Guevara-Rosas said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Monday.

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More than 42,000 asylum seekers have entered the country through unauthorized points of entry since U.S. President Donald Trump launched his crackdown on illegal immigration two years ago, stirring up an intense political debate across Canada. The Liberal government is working with U.S. officials to revamp a border agreement on asylum seekers so Canada can turn away more refugee claimants at the land border, but the opposition Conservatives say Ottawa must act immediately to stop them from crossing.

Amnesty International Canada Secretary-General Alex Neve said the use of “inflammatory language” by the Tories and Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party has stoked fears of an “invasion of illegals” at the border and caused the Liberal government to rethink its asylum policy.

"There are political parties that have been fanning the flames around this,” Mr. Neve said.

“The hardening … of attitudes around refugees and migrants has propelled the government to pivot a little bit.”

Despite increasing political rhetoric about asylum seekers, a recent poll shows Canadians’ views on immigrants and refugees have held steady over the past six months. An Environics survey shows 44 per cent of Canadians think immigration makes the country a better place, while 15 per cent say it makes Canada a worse place, 34 per cent believe it has made no difference and 7 per cent have no opinion. Directly comparable numbers from 2018 indicate Canadians’ views remain stable, with responses varying by only a few percentage points.

The Liberal government has also proposed changes that would prevent asylum seekers who have already made a refugee claim in the United States, Britain, Australia or New Zealand from having access to a full refugee hearing by an independent tribunal. Amnesty and other refugee advocates said the proposal, buried in the omnibus budget bill earlier this month, was as an attack on the rights of asylum seekers.

The new provisions may run up against a Supreme Court ruling from 1985 that laid the foundations of refugee law in Canada. The Singh ruling found that all refugee claimants on Canadian soil are entitled to an oral hearing.

Speaking to The Globe earlier this month, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ representative in Canada, said the proposal was “in line with international law” because asylum seekers are still entitled to a preremoval risk assessment, which considers whether they will face persecution in their home country if deported from Canada. Mr. Neve said he was “dismayed” by the UNHCR’s response to the proposal, which puts it at odds with many refugee and human-rights organization across Canada.

In a statement Monday, Mr. Blair defended the budget bill’s proposed asylum changes and encouraged refugee claimants to seek protection at the first available opportunity. If asylum seekers who have made a claim in the United States, Britain, Australia or New Zealand choose to do so in Canada, Mr. Blair promised that those individuals will still get an interview with an immigration official through the preremoval risk assessment process – something that hasn’t been guaranteed before.

“Nobody will be removed without an opportunity to be heard, nor turned away if they are deemed to be at risk."

The Environics poll is based on phone interviews with 2,000 Canadians between April 1 and 10 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

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