refugees enter canada
Klaudios Mustakas

Klaudios Mustakas – Immigration Advisor

Klaudios Mustakas – Senior Immigration Advisor: The southern influx of undocumented immigrants to Canada in the last several weeks is causing more press and water cooler chatter by the day. There is evidence that the welcoming attitude of the citizens of some Canadian border towns is wearing thin, as residents wonder if the Trudeau government has a plan for these developments:

Those arriving in Emerson come on foot in the dead of night, unnerving its 650 residents. Some fear the influx of unscreened migrants while others are frustrated by the cost and effort forced on the community.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is under increased pressure from the left, which wants him to let more in, and from the right, which is fearful of an increased security risk. Trudeau must tread carefully to ensure the issue does not complicate relations with Trump.

The cooling welcome in Emerson is a microcosm of growing discontent over Canada’s open door policy for refugees.

Last week, an Angus Reid poll found that while 47 percent of respondents said Canada is taking in the right number of refugees, 41 percent said the number is already too high.

refugees enter canada

Refugees enter Canada in Emerson, Manitoba. Pic: REUTERS/Lyle Stafford.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Every year, hundreds of immigrants cross illegally into Canada from the south. But the numbers are now rising. In January of last year, 139 people illegally crossed into Canada along the borders of New York, Vermont, and Maine. In December, the number leaped to 591.

If that’s what it’s like the middle of winter, no doubt the number will spike as the weather gets warmer. People fearful of President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration – and heeding Prime Minister Trudeau’s message of “Welcome to Canada” – will head for the Canadian border in hopes of finding safe haven. But that doesn’t mean that they will be allowed to stay.

Safe Third Country Loophole

Currently, the Safe Third Country Agreement is very specific. If someone enters Canada at an official border crossing and wants to claim refugee status, they are sent back to the USA and told to make their claim to the Americans. However, a loophole in the agreement allows individuals to claim refugee protection if they enter Canada in a place other than a designated port of entry, such as over a residential fence or through someone’s field.

Only a few hundred people have made such a trek this year, but as the weather improves and more Trump Executive Orders are issued, the flow will become a torrent. And the Canadian government is not innocent, either. Sending messages of “welcome to Canada” and implying that people will be treated as “home free” if they get here is disingenuous at best.

When is a refugee a refugee?

From the stories I’m reading now, the press and the average Canadian think that all of these arriving people are refugees. Incorrect. The reality is that the majority of people crossing the border are economic migrants looking for a better life in Canada. And, rightly or wrongly, looking for a better life does not make someone a refugee. To be considered one, you must meet the UN’s definition of a refugee:

A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.

Note that searching for economic opportunities or good jobs is not mentioned. This is the hard and sad part of immigration: you cannot help everyone. You must choose.

In our current situation, we have citizens of Mexico and other Central American states who have lived illegally in the USA for many years and, rather than return to Mexico, have decided to take their chances in Canada. Will it work? History says that this plan will be unsuccessful for many of them.

Canada’s History With Refugees

What’s his next move? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

First, it must be said that Canada does have a history of compassionately welcoming refugees from many parts of the world. Over 40,000 Syrian refugees have been allowed to settle in Canada in the past 2 years. Prior to that, Canada welcomed thousands of Kosovans in the 90’s. Decades ago, thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” were welcomed here. And just last week, Canada announced that 1,400 Yazidis will be welcomed to Canada in 2017, having fled violence and persecution in the Middle East.

These are people who have fled war, destruction, and sometimes sexual exploitation and violence in lawless states. Canada has welcomed hundreds of thousands of them over the years.

Meanwhile, the majority of people from poor but relatively stable countries are usually not granted refugee status. Many of the people currently coming across the border will have their refugee claims denied. Indeed, a report from last week revealed that 4% of recent Syrian refugee claimants were themselves denied settlement in Canada for various reasons.

For an example of how things might play out in the near future, look no further than Canada’s own history with Mexico in the past 10 years. When Mexican refugee claims in Canada spiked from 2005 – 2009 (there were almost 10,000 Mexican refugee claims in the first half of 2009 alone), two out of every three of them were denied. The problem became so severe that the Conservatives imposed a visa requirement on Mexico that lasted until 2016. Will Trudeau reinstate the visa requirement, or otherwise change course, now that a claims problem looks to be on the rise again? The border issue might force his hand.

Proceed With Caution

The government has to be careful that this movement does not become unbearable, stretching limited government resources to the point that the authorities will be overwhelmed. This will result in legitimate refugees being unable to receive assistance.

The press and the public must also be reminded that the individuals coming in now are refugee claimants and not refugees, until the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada decides otherwise on a case by case basis.

The government should act quickly, before a summer of discontent. The first step would be to close the loophole in the Safe Third Country agreement, to stanch the flow of people coming into Canada who think that the loophole allows a free pass to refugee status.

Klaudios Mustakas is a retired former Manager of Enforcement Operations with the Canada Border Services Agency. He travels extensively in the Middle East to counsel individuals on immigration issues.