Douglas Todd: Canadian politicians more wary about asylum seekers

Opinion: Since Justin Trudeau’s famous welcoming of the world’s persecuted, politicians’ tone has grown more skeptical.

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“To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength.”

That was the message Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted online in 2017, fresh from an election victory in which Canadian politicians of the left, right and centre were virtually competing to claim who would bring the most refugees from war-torn Syria.

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At the time, Trudeau also posted a photograph of himself with a child, apparently a Syrian refugee, with the caption “#WelcomeToCanada”. The post on Twitter (now X) was shared hundreds of thousands of times.

What a startling difference seven years make when it comes to politicians and public opinion.

Instead of highlighting how the Liberals brought in 73,000 Syrian refugees, one of the highest rates in the Western world, Trudeau’s immigration minister is now exasperated that more than 10,000 international students in Ontario are suddenly applying for refugee status.

Trudeau’s government has also just reversed itself and slapped a visa requirement on visitors from Mexico, because they have been by far the largest cohort asking for asylum. The Liberals are reverting to an earlier Conservative policy.

Meanwhile, Quebec’s government said in February it can’t afford to finance housing and services for the tens of thousands of people increasingly showing up by land and air claiming they’re escaping persecution.

It also didn’t inspire confidence last month when a British Airways’ employee fled to India after making $5.1 million on an alleged scam enabling people without documentation to get on flights to Canada so they could claim asylum.

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This has all been occurring while opinion polls show Canadians becoming more dubious on immigration.

A Leger poll this week showed the proportion of Canadians who want fewer migrants has, in less than a year, more than doubled — to half. And while an earlier Ipsos poll found 64 per cent of Canadians support accepting more refugees from Ukraine, only 35 per cent wanted asylum seekers from Venezuela and Syria.

Canada is now processing 140,000 asylum claims a year, more than five times the average before Trudeau was elected In 2015.

While most claimants are from Mexico, large contingents hail from Haiti, India, Colombia and Africa.

“Why have there been so many asylum claims in 2023?” asks Michael Barutciski of York University’s Glendon College, who has researched refugee camps in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

“The only logical explanation for these striking policy decisions is widespread ideological conviction that Canada must be as open as possible. But this conviction is now posing a long-term threat to the asylum system,” says Barutciski of the Macdonald-Laurier Foundation.

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“The Liberals came to power partly because of the humanitarian spirit they displayed during the Syrian refugee crisis. But now asylum issues may contribute to their downfall as Canadians become increasingly aware of how detached from reality their policies have become.”

One of Barutciski’s recommendations is that Canada tighten its loose approach to issuing visas. Such reforms are happening in Germany, Europe’s most welcoming country, he says, which has received a similar rate of asylum seekers per capita as Canada.

“Across the world political leaders, ranging from U.S. Democrats to Germany’s coalition Social Democrat and Green partners, are realizing that current approaches to asylum are undermining their democracies and stoking reactionist anti-immigrant rhetoric,” Barutciski says. “Trudeau’s Liberals appear as a global outlier even among progressive governments.”

Last year Canada’s immigration and refugee (IRB) boards approved asylum claimants in seven out of 10 cases — 37,000 out of 52,000. That left 102,000 applicants still awaiting a decision in what are often drawn-out hearings featuring complex stories.

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“It’s ‘cat and mouse’ all the time. The ways people come to Canada are changing constantly, limited only by human ingenuity,” says Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland.

Because Canada isn’t a closed authoritarian state, Kurland believes it’s reasonable for the country to prepare for 40,000 to 60,000 claimants a year. However, he says the hearing process should be sped up.

Since internal government documents reveal each rejected refugee applicant costs Canadian taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a year in health care, legal aid, welfare and deportation costs, Kurland maintained quicker IRB rulings would “mean the person gets removed faster, which kills the incentive. So fewer people will apply.”

Last year Canada’s refugee boards approved asylum claimants in seven out of 10 cases. An internal report shows each rejected claimant costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars for housing and welfare. Photo by DARRYL DYCK /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Samuel Hyman, a Vancouver immigration lawyer, said Canadians shouldn’t “underestimate the impact of Trudeau’s welcoming messaging on the rapid increase in asylum claims.”

And politicians in Quebec and elsewhere have a right to complain, said Hyman, that the federal government is offloading the cost of providing services to the provinces and cities. While Quebec and Ontario are dealing with the most asylum seekers, B.C. comes in third.

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It’s a problem, said Hyman, that IRB tribunal members are highly inconsisent in approving or rejecting asylum requests. Panelists, he said, often seem to have trouble distinguishing between “legitimate refugee claimants” and “economic migrants, some with access to significant assets and wealth, who take advantage of our generous system.”

Chris Friesen of the Canadian Immigrant Settlement Sector Alliance says combating growing public skepticism about asylum seekers will require Ottawa to become more long-range in planning.

Instead of making behind-the-scenes, extemporaneous decisions, like offering visas and support to 280,000 Ukrainian migrants, Friesen said the federal government needs a co-ordinated migration strategy for 10 years. It should contain fixed annual targets for not only permanent residents, but also for temporary workers and students, whose numbers have soared to almost one million.

Friesen, who leads the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. and has worked in immigrant settlement services for 30 years, is worried that some will “play the blame game” in coming elections.

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“In 2015 all political parties were stepping over each other to set targets for Syrian refugees. It was a totally different environment, where the discussion of the refugee crisis influenced the outcome of the election,” he said.

“Now we’re swinging the other way. We have the housing crisis, lack of school infrastructure, transit shortages, etc. And public opinion is beginning to shift.”

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