Andrew Coyne: Problem with asylum seekers in Canada can only be fixed if U.S. decides to help

Coyne nails it. Any effective solution requires working with the Americans:

The frontier between the United States and Canada is often described as the “world’s longest undefended border.” This is untrue. It is defended by the United States, in both directions.

The Americans are certainly vigilant in defence of their own border, as anyone who has visited the United States lately could attest. But they are no less responsible, in a way, for defending Canada’s.

So far as the border goes undefended by Canada, it is because it is, as far as we are concerned, indefensible. We simply don’t have the resources to patrol a eight-thousand-kilometre border — still less tens of thousands of kilometres of coastline.

That a few million people, indeed, could lay claim to the entire northern half of the continent, without more than a fraction of the armed might needed to defend it, was always a bit of a con. It has relied, from the start, on our proximity to the United States.

The country exists, it is not too far to say, because the United States agrees it should. The Americans could invade any time they liked; there would be nothing we could do to stop it. They simply choose not to. So, too, we would be powerless to prevent any serious power from invading from abroad. Our security depends instead on the Americans refusing to tolerate this.

Something of the same applies to those little “invasions” by thousands of desperate individuals who, to escape persecution and privation (for most, the motives are mixed), will cross whatever international borders they must: legally if possible, illegally if necessary.

Most western countries are grappling with this. That Canada has been relatively lightly affected is because we are bounded on three sides by thousands of kilometres of water — and on the fourth by the United States. The security of our southern flank has very little to do with the policies we enact. It depends rather on what the Americans do.

The Safe Third Country Agreement between our two countries that is the subject of so much recent controversy is an example of this. Negotiated by the Chretien government in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was essentially a favour to us, part of a larger package of border measures; Canada had indeed been seeking such an agreement for years.

Ostensibly, the accord is reciprocal: each country agrees to turn back refugee claimants from the other, since each agrees to regard the other as “safe.” Those seeking asylum are therefore obliged to make their claims in the first country they arrive in.

But who’s kidding whom? So far as the agreement was intended to prevent “asylum shopping,” the flow of claimants was only ever likely to be in one direction.

Few, after all, would turn their back on the relatively lenient Canadian system to take their chances on the relatively strict American system. It was done at our request, to limit the number of refugee claimants entering by our southern border — and with the understanding that their claims would instead by heard by the U.S.

Even at the time, it was widely predicted to fail. If it reduced the number of legal border crossings, it could only be at the cost of creating “an incentive for people to cross the border in illegal ways,” as the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, Janet Dench, noted. “They’re going to come across fields and rivers, in the backs of trucks and cars,” said the organization’s vice-president, Nick Summers. “They’re going to take risks and there are people who are going to die.” I think we can now acknowledge he was right.

Those who are demanding, in response to the latest surge in illegal crossings, that Canada “get control of its borders,” are therefore talking through their hats. It’s not something we can do on our own.

For starters, any change to the Safe Third Country Agreement — extending its reach from a small number of official ports of entry to the entire border, as the Conservatives have demanded — could only be done with the Americans’ co-operation. We can’t simply turn back refugee claimants, unless the Americans agree to take them. That’s true not only as a matter of U.S. law, but of our international obligations, under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, not to mention Canadian law.

It seems unlikely, to say the least, that the current administration would accept such an amendment. Even if they did comply, that would still leave us with the task of policing 8,000 km of border. The more broadly we cast our net, the further afield the asylum seekers would be likely to go to evade it.

If we want to cut the flow of illegal border crossers, rather, we have to alter the incentives that encourage them to take this route. Right now they have every incentive to cross at irregular points, since that way they are guaranteed a hearing, in contrast to the official ports of entry, where they are turned back automatically.

What if we reversed that: enter by the lawful door, you get a hearing; enter anywhere else and you are sent back? But again, the U.S. would have to agree.

More broadly, we have to close the gap between Canadian and American practices, in reality or perception, that leads people to believe it is worth fleeing north. That’s not just a matter of reminding would-be claimants that acceptance is not automatic, that they may well be deported after their hearing. So long as their chances of being accepted are materially greater in Canada, the incentive will remain.

I suppose we could tighten our procedures to American designs. Or, if that’s intolerable to us, we can try to persuade the U.S. to be more liberal.

But one way or another, it is the Americans who will decide.

Source: Andrew Coyne: Problem with asylum seekers in Canada can only be fixed if U.S. decides to help

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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