Canada’s New Refugee Crisis

Since January, 2017, over 6,500 refugee claimants, or some 150 per day, have entered into the province of Quebec from the United States. Their original homes are thousands of kilometers away, and they include diverse origins such as Haiti, Syria and Burundi. But, most arrive from the U.S. fearing new crackdowns by the Trump administration, or hearing false information that they would be immediately granted residency in Canada. The number of new arrivals has been so large that claimants are being temporarily housed in Montreal’s Olympic stadium.

The most recent surge in the number of refugees entering Canada is a continuation of the ‘Safe Third Country’ issue that I originally wrote about on February 9, 2017. Under this agreement, refugee claimants arriving at an official border post can be turned back to make their claim in the United States. But if they arrive anywhere else along the border, the Safe Third Country doesn’t apply, and they are allowed to enter Canada while their case is heard.

But finding a ‘fix’ (if one is truly needed) isn’t easy. It is, after all, unlikely that the United States government (or the Canadian government for that matter) would agree to change the Safe Third Country agreement or to cancel it outright for reasons that could include the current re-negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), security issues, and differing immigration policies. Moreover, the reasons for the arrival of refugees on Canada’s doorstep aren’t going to disappear – the on-going civil war in Syria is just one example of a situation that cannot be resolved easily that is echoed in countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere in Africa and Asia. Climate change will only exacerbate the flow of ‘environmental refugees’ in the coming decades.

The other important piece to note here is the disparity in policies that distinguish between refugees and refugee claimants (or asylum seekers). Despite Prime Minister Trudeau’s comment earlier this year “to those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you”, Canada’s reception of refugee claimants has been much cooler. Gone is the ability to select refugees long before they arrive in Canada. Instead, refugee claimants arrive in Canada, with their claims for asylum heard in Canada – a process that takes time.

As a potential destination, Canada is an attractive destination for claimants given its liberal traditions, support for immigrants, and being a relatively welcoming society. The shock for Canadians is that refugee claimants have found their way here and have essentially walked, sailed or flown into the country despite the fact that Canada does not share a border (or relative proximity) with refugee generating locations. But, although their routes, origins, and timing might differ, the reality is that they are no different than a refugee claimant arriving in Europe: They are looking for safety, security, and a future for their families.

Given that there is no easy solution, Canada, and other nations, must get used to the movement and entry of refugees and refugee claimants. This includes having policies and programs that facilitate refugee hearings in a timely manner.

Further Reading

Campbell Clark, There’s no easy solution to Canada’s border problem, The Globe and Mail, 6 August 2017.   See:


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