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Globe editorial: Time to fix our uniquely Canadian border mess

No, the number of people walking across the Canada-U.S. border at Roxham Road is not a refugee crisis. In a country of 36 million people, which accepts 300,000 immigrants a year, 6,800 asylum seekers – that's how many crossed from New York to Quebec, between July 1 and August 15 – don't meet the definition of crisis. Not yet.

But the spike in illegal arrivals is revealing, once again, the multiple, long-standing dysfunctions of this country's refugee-determination system. It is also laying bare the incoherence of the Liberal government's response.

The government could be handling all of this in a manner that is lawful, orderly, transparent, compassionate, and honest with both Canadians and asylum-seekers. Instead, what we are witnessing is papered-over chaos. The Justin Trudeau government would of course be happy if the flow of people stopped of its own accord, but it has until now been extremely reluctant to be seen to be attempting to stem the tide, lest it be accused of acting Harper-like. And lest it give a lie to one of the Prime Minister's most famous tweets.

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In January, just after Mr. Trump's inauguration and when the flow of people was just starting, Mr. Trudeau tweeted: "To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength. #WelcomeToCanada."

The tweet was widely praised. It was a lovely contrast to President Trump and his unconcealed Islamophobia. But Mr. Trudeau and his government had no intention of welcoming everyone who walked across the border. That's not how Canada's immigration and refugee system works, no matter whether the government is Liberal or Conservative. Under international and Canadian law, a refugee is someone who is fleeing his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Canada grants asylum and a path to citizenship for people who are genuine refugees. All others are likely to be ordered to leave – eventually.

Most this summer's arrivals at Roxham Road in Quebec are from Haiti, but traditionally about half of all refugee applications from that country are rejected. What's more, a program allowing Haitians to temporarily remain in Canada, begun after Haiti's massive 2010 earthquake, was ended last year by Ottawa – long before Mr. Trump's administration began taking the same step. Mr. Trudeau's sunny tweet hid rather a lot of fine print.

On Tuesday, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said that Canadian consulates in the U.S. were being "mobilized" to "get in touch with different groups that might be considering coming to Canada, so they can clearly explain the rules in place and the criteria that must be met before being able to come." It seems hard to believe that's going to accomplish much.

We're guessing that not a lot of potential asylum seekers get invited to consular garden parties. And even if they did, the message that Canada is now delivering, sotto voce – if you don't meet the legal definition of refugee, you won't be allowed to remain in Canada – is not entirely accurate. It's true in theory. Practice is another story.

The challenge is not that the people arriving at Roxham Road don't understand the Canadian refuge system. It is rather that they may understand it better than the elected officials in charge of it.

In June, the Canadian Press obtained a federal government memo showing how the glacial refugee system could slow even further with just a small uptick in the number of asylum seekers, of the sort seen this summer. In the most optimistic scenario – 28,000 refugee claims made in Canada in 2017, rising to 36,000 in subsequent years – the average time to get a case heard will be four to five years. With higher numbers of migrants, and without new government resources, the memo said that wait times could grow to as much as 11 years.

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A court ruling this week revealed yet more things not working in our refugee determination system. On Monday, Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan ordered Ricardo Scotland released from a maximum security prison, where he has spent 18 months over the last two years, despite having no criminal convictions or charges. Mr. Scotland is a refugee claimant, and at some point the government decided that, unlike most claimants, he is a flight risk and a danger.

However, the judge found no evidence whatsoever to support that contention. None. The Canada Border Services Agency put Mr. Scotland in a maximum security prison, and left him there, for what the judge described as "no real reason at all."

Mr. Scotland's treatment provoked outrage, and should have. But the case has another interesting wrinkle. Mr. Scotland is a citizen of Barbados, a relatively prosperous and democratic country. He made his refugee claim in 2010. Seven years later, the system has still not decided whether he is, or is not, a refugee.

People are crossing at Roxham Road because they can, easily. The distance from the end of the U.S. street to the foot of Chemin Roxham in Quebec is just a few steps. Go to a legal border post and you'll be returned to the U.S.; cross illegally, and your claim will be heard. Once you're in Canada, you can remain until your case is decided. And that may not happen for a long while. A lot can happen with the passage of time.

The best response Canada can offer is to speed up the refugee determination process. That means spending more money, and hiring more bodies for the Canada Border Services Agency and the Immigration and Refugee Board. Determine status quickly, accept those who are genuine refugees, quickly, and remove those who are not – quickly. It's possible to have peace, order, good government, fairness and honesty. The current system is compromising all of the above.

This story was updated to reflect figures on asylum seekers released by the RCMP on August 17.

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