For the past number of years, the number of asylum claims has been on the rise. In 2017, it totalled at 49,775, surpassing the previous high of nearly 45,000 people who sought entry into Canada in 2001. This is in line with global trends. The United Nations estimates that there are currently 65 million people around the world who have been forcibly displaced, the highest number in recorded history. To mitigate and adequately address this situation, and to plan for the possibility of similar numbers of asylum seekers seeking entry into Canada in 2018, our government has taken unprecedented steps aimed at better managing the influx, while ensuring that we are keeping Canadians safe and secure and that we are adhering to international obligations and our values as Canadians.
As this is among the issues of concern for many in our community and with a good amount of misinformation being circulated, I want to ensure that I am proactive in providing information that may be helpful in better understanding the situation and the decisions we make as a government. As such, I would like to share with you my responses to the top five recurring questions that have been raised with me and I look forward to continuing to reading and responding to your questions in the weeks and months ahead.
WHY ARE ASYLUM SEEKERS NOT BEING STOPPED AT THE BORDER?
We have no jurisdiction over asylum seekers coming from the United States until they set foot on Canadian soil. That is why, as can be seen in recently circulated videos, RCMP officers will warn them that they are breaking the law and will apprehend them when they cross the border. However, the officers cannot physically stop them from doing so.
There are two ways asylum seekers can attempt entry into Canada. The first method is used by the majority of individuals who seek asylum from the United States, and this is through one of our official checkpoints at the Canada-US border—the same border crossings many of us use to make our way to the United States and back by car. The majority of these asylum seekers are sent back because of an agreement Canada has with the United States on the treatment of refugees. This agreement, adopted in 2004, is called the Safe Third Country Agreement and is founded on a principle supported by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency that individuals should seek asylum in the first safe country in which they arrive. In other words, asylum seekers from the United States are often not allowed to submit a claim in Canada because they already are in what is considered to be a “safe country” and should seek protection there. The Safe Third Country Agreement is an important tool and one that has benefited both Canada and the U.S. when dealing with asylum seekers seeking entry at official checkpoints.
The second method for crossing our border is through non-official checkpoints including rural and forested areas, such as those found in Lacolle, Quebec. Through this method, asylum seekers are not subject to the Safe Third Country Agreement. Instead, they are processed under different rules, namely, Section 133 of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. This Act has been adopted in the spirit of complying with the values and norms prescribed by the 1951 Geneva Convention, of which Canada, the United States, France, Finland, and 142 other countries are signatories, and dictates the rights of refugees around the world. Through this legislation, law enforcement officers are prohibited from charging asylum seekers with an offence for coming into Canada and cannot legally stop border crossers from making their way into our country.
Any changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement, for example to have it apply to every asylum seeker entering Canada from the U.S., cannot be done unilaterally and must be agreed to by both Canada and the U.S.
HOW IS OUR GOVERNMENT ENSURING THE SAFETY OF CANADIANS GIVEN THE INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF IRREGULAR CROSSINGS?
Since the increase began, we have taken significant steps to provide the resources necessary to those who are working to keep our borders secure and to work in collaboration with our domestic and international security partners.
We continue to use biometrics, including facial recognition and fingerprinting, to confirm if someone seeking entry into Canada has previously applied to enter Canada using either the same or a new identity. This step also screens for anyone who may have a previous Canadian criminal record or has been removed from Canada before while also working closely with our partners in the United States to cross-reference our databases to ensure that no asylum seeker or irregular border-crossers pose a threat to Canadians or Americans. Hence, whenever a claimant comes into Canada, it is never released by our law enforcement officers until a thorough security screening is completed.
Through Budget 2018 alone, our government worked to reverse cuts of $390 million to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) made by the previous Conservative government that caused significant backlogs in our capacity to treat asylum claims. We know that less funding for those working hard to protect Canadians will not lead to more secure borders. That is why we invested $173.2 million more to support robust security operations at the Canada-U.S. border and faster processing of claims. This investment includes $74 million dedicated to the Immigration and Refugee Board, which evaluates each claimant on a case-by-case basis, in order to bolster its capacity so that successful claimants can start fully participating in Canadian society and unfounded claimants are removed from Canada faster. Further, we have worked directly with provinces and municipalities to establish a national operation plan which will coordinate our response in case of another influx both in the short and long term. Our government also created the Task Force on Irregular Migration, which includes key federal and provincial ministers, who meet regularly to ensure a collaborative approach, address emerging issues and coordinate our response.
These concrete actions to mitigate the effects of the influx and to proactively prepare if others were to emerge have already delivered tangible results. Our government established a faster process for issuing temporary work permits to asylum seekers, thus minimizing their reliance on social services. This approach has yielded unprecedented results as we have cut processing times from three months down to three weeks and have issued more than 14,000 temporary work permits for asylum seekers in Quebec alone. Following the Geneva Convention guidelines, Canada provides asylum seekers with temporary resources such as healthcare services and schooling for children while their case is being heard. While we are pleased with the efforts being made thus far, our government knows that there is still more work to do. That is why we continue to work with an open and collaborative approach with our American partners and provinces like Quebec and Ontario to put in place a better triage system for asylum seekers.
All of these steps take place while their case is being judged by the Immigration Refugee Board of Canada, which will hear their case and determine if their deportation poses a risk to their safety. If they are deemed not to be in need of Canada’s protection because there is no threat to their security in returning home, they are asked to leave. If they do not go, we will remove them to their country of origin.
AREN’T ASYLUM SEEKERS SIMPLY OFFERED A “FREE TICKET” TO CANADA?
Asylum seekers are not offered a “free ticket” into Canada, they are not given a more lenient treatment, and they are not taking the place of others waiting overseas to come to Canada. The systems and primary resources are separate, and the current increase is not projected to affect the processing time for those who are looking to immigrate to Canada through regular channels. Furthermore, the number of asylum claimants does not impact the number of refugees we resettle directly from abroad in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency. These are two different streams and they are processed to completely separate systems. It is also worth noting that the majority of processed claims over the last year were refused entry into Canada, including over 90% of Haitian nationals living in the U.S. being refused refugee status as they did not have justifiable claims for asylum.
WHY DOES IT TAKE SO LONG TO PROCESS ASYLUM SEEKERS?
It is worth noting, again, that we started off with a deficit in our ability to protect our border adequately due to the $390 million cuts made to the Canadian Border Services Agency by the previous government. Even so, since the increase in asylum seekers began, we have been working diligently to provide more resources to those who patrol our borders because we know that less funding for those working hard to protect Canadians will not lead to more secure borders. In our most recent budget, we invested $173.2 million more to support robust security operations at the Canada-U.S. border in anticipation of an additional influx this summer. This investment includes $74 million for the Immigration and Refugee Board to enable faster decision-making on asylum claims. This investment includes funding for 64 new decision makers. Faster processing means that asylum seekers who have been vetted and accepted can move on to start building their lives and contributing to our society in Canada, while those who have not received an acceptance can be sent back to their country of origin sooner.
WHAT IS OUR GOVERNMENT DOING TO ADDRESS THE PROBLEM AT THE SOURCE?
Our government has taken significant proactive measures to curb the number of claimants attempting to cross into Canada including working through our Consulates in the U.S. and sending numerous Members of Parliament and other representatives to key U.S. communities to reach potential migrant communities with the aim of ensuring that they understand Canadian immigration laws and the consequences of crossing the border illegally.
For instance, my colleague and fellow MP for Honoré-Mercier, Pablo Rodriguez, travelled to Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, Houston, and New York to speak directly with the Salvadoran and Honduran communities in their Spanish mother tongue to dispel the myth of a “free ticket into Canada” and misinformation about Canada’s immigration system. Haitian-born Emmanuel Dubourg, the MP for Bourassa, has also travelled on behalf of our government to the United States to meet with members of the Haitian community in churches, community centres and radio and TV stations. This effort bore its fruits as it created a swift decline in the number of Haitian claimants crossing into Canada. Our government is taking a similar approach with the increase in Nigerian nationals seeking entry. Indeed, our Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, the Honourable Ahmed Hussen, met with top government officials in Nigeria in an effort to hamper the number of irregular border crossings from Nigerian nationals coming from the United States. In response, Nigeria vowed to issue travel documents faster for its citizens whose claims for asylum have been refused and are in the process of being expelled from Canada. Our message is clear: crossing into Canada through irregularly is not a free ticket into our country.
As your Member of Parliament, I will continue to strongly advocate for a humane yet robust system of asylum seeker application that respects international law while using all resources at our disposal to ensure that Canadians are provided with the security they deserve. Our investments, in combination with our multifaceted approach, will ensure just that.
I am proud of our government’s response to the unprecedented rise in asylum seekers, and I will ensure that you are notified if any significant developments are forthcoming. If you have any further questions about our government’s investments to reinforce our border security or the asylum process itself, please do not hesitate to contact my office at your convenience.