National Column: Keeping Trump-inspired refugee flood in perspective

by Thomas Walkom

The storyline detailing the flood of refugees crossing into Canada to escape Donald Trump should be kept in perspective.

First, it is not a flood. Second, not all of those who claim to be refugees will necessarily be granted that status. Third, it is not yet clear that all or even most are fleeing the new U.S. president.

The individual tales of those struggling through snow and frigid temperatures to find asylum in Canada are gripping. But the numbers remain small.

Since the beginning of the year, roughly 140 people have crossed illegally into Manitoba – one of two provinces that have captured public attention. About 450 more have crossed illegally into Quebec, where the border is equally porous.

The numbers are up from last year but, according to the federal government, down from 2008.

In any case, compared to Canada’s total planned refugee intake this year of 40,000, this is still minor – so far.

Those crossing the border illegally are using a loophole in the Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the U.S. That 2004 pact, negotiated in large part at Canada’s behest, prevents asylum seekers already in the U.S. from making refugee claims at the Canadian border – and vice versa.

But those who manage to somehow make it past the border can make a claim for asylum – which is what those crossing illegally into Manitoba and Quebec are doing.

Not all who apply for refugee status get it. Claimants must be able to successfully make the case they would face persecution if they returned to their country of origin.

Legally, it’s not enough to be poor and desperate. The merely poor and desperate must apply for residency in
Canada through the standard immigration system. They may be very nice people. But unless they face persecution at home, they are not considered refugees under the law.

In short, we don’t yet know how many of the roughly 600 people who have crossed into Manitoba and Quebec since Jan. 1 will be accepted as refugees. Those who are not will be subject to deportation back to their home countries.

It’s hard to estimate how much of the bump in refugee claims from non-Americans living in the U.S. is attributable to Trump. His anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric certainly has made many nervous. That’s the conclusion of Jean-Nicolas Beuze, a representative of the United Nations refugee agency who spent a day last week watching between 50 and 70 migrants illegally cross into Quebec.

Beuze told The Canadian Press that most of those he spoke to had papers allowing them to live legally in the U.S. But many figured their asylum claims would have a better chance in Canada.

Still, not all of this is necessarily attributable to Trump. The U.S. refugee system has always been more politicized than that of Canada – which is one reason why so many refugee advocates mistrust the Safe Third Country agreement.

In the 1980s, for instance, Central Americans fleeing death squads tied to Washington had little chance of winning refugee status in the U.S. The odds were always better in Canada.

Some believe that similar differences still exist.

One refugee claimant from Ghana, who lost fingers to frostbite during his harrowing Christmas Eve journey across the Manitoba border last year, told CBC Radio he made the trek because his refugee claim had been denied in the U.S. – well before Trump became president.

We shall see what happens as Trump continues to roll out his agenda.

So far, Ottawa has rejected calls to formally suspend the Safe Third Country agreement in order to regularize the flow of refugee claimants entering Canada from the U.S.

But in Quebec, it has effectively done just that, by establishing unofficial entry points along the frontier.

The would-be refugees know exactly where to cross the border into Quebec. The RCMP are there waiting to arrest them and transport them to border officials so they can make their formal asylum claims.

Everyone is polite. Everything is orderly. The Mounties sometimes help with the migrants’ luggage.

As my colleague Allan Woods has written, it is like a play where all know their parts. Very Canadian.

Thomas Walkom appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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