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Canada welcomes refugees, but shuts the door on asylum seekers

Vic Satzewich is a professor of sociology at McMaster University.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen sound a lot like former Conservative Immigration Minister Jason Kenney these days when it comes to immigration. Last Friday the Prime Minister said, "Protecting Canadians' confidence in the integrity of our system allows us to continue to be open, and that's exactly what I plan to continue to do." Over the weekend, both the Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister counselled Haitians thinking about crossing the U.S. border into Canada to stay where they are and make their refugee claim in the United States. Many of Mr. Kenney's public comments about changes to the immigration system introduced under his watch were also peppered with references to the need to maintain the integrity of, and public confidence in, the immigration system.

Maintaining the "integrity of the immigration system" is in part the shared code language for how our governments (Conservative or Liberal) think about asylum seekers. Canada may love refugees like Syrians who are selected and screened abroad before they set foot in the country, but the same cannot be said about asylum seekers who wash up on our shores in boats, or who walk across our border with the U.S.

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Canada's approach to asylum seekers pokes holes in the image of the country as inherently welcoming to immigrants and refugees. The fear and panic Canadians expressed about the arrival of 174 Sikhs off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1987, the arrival of "ghost ships" from Fujian, China in 1999, and 492 Tamils aboard the MV Sun Sea in 2010, bear little resemblance to Mr. Trudeau's tweet in January where he told the world that, "To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you." Indeed, a 2015 Environics poll found that nearly half of Canadians believe that refugees coming to Canada do not have a legitimate claim.

Though the policy climate in the United States toward immigrants and refugees is changing for the worse, I am not optimistic that the Liberals will do much to make it easier for Haitians and others to make a refugee claim in Canada.

The immigration department is obsessed – and this is not too strong a word – with preventing the arrival in Canada of "jumpers" (their shorthand for "queue jumpers.") One of the responsibilities of a visa officer is to try to predict whether a person who applies for a visitor visa will make an asylum claim after they arrive. If they think a person might "jump," they can refuse to issue a visa. Even though making an asylum claim in Canada is not illegal, Canadian authorities dislike it when individuals use the visitor visa system to get to Canada to make a refugee claim.

Nor am I optimistic that the Liberals will rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement. Doing so would be a slap in the face to American authorities because it would send a very clear message that Canada does not have confidence that U.S. authorities can deal fairly with asylum claims. Some might say that with the current chaos in the White House, the U.S. will not notice, but at a time when there are heightened tensions about immigration in that country, you bet they will. I also doubt whether the Liberals are going to want to muddy the waters as we renegotiate NAFTA.

Nor is the government likely to close the "loophole" in the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows individuals to make an asylum claim if they cross into Canada outside of an official port of entry. To do so would involve an unprecedented militarization of the Canadian border and most Canadians are not ready to see the spectacle of the RCMP or CBSA officials physically preventing asylum seekers from crossing into Canada. We would look a lot like Hungary and its approach to preventing the arrival of asylum seekers.

The government of Canada has benefited more from the Safe Third Country Agreement than the United States. The two countries entered into the agreement for different reasons. For the U.S., it was part of a post-9/11 effort to enhance security. For Canada, it was an effort to stop asylum seekers from entering from the United States. One study found that before the Safe Third Country Agreement was put into effect, between 8,000 and 13,000 refugee claimants entered Canada annually from the United States. During the same period (1995-2001), only about 200 refugee claimants entered the United States from Canada.

The sad reality is that Canada's welcoming approach to immigrants and refugees comes at the expense of asylum seekers.

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Video: People gather in Montreal to welcome asylum seekers (The Canadian Press)
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