The U.S. might be about to send us these two immigration and refugee problems

Good insight on the next series of headaches:

Of the many files landing on the next government’s desk following this month’s election, at least two may give it an immigration headache. Both come from decisions made by our neighbour to the south: President Donald Trump’s reversal of his country’s post-Reagan refugee policy and his rewriting of “safe third country” rules. Addressing each will involve a difficult balance of humanitarian principles, foreign policy interests and our relationship with the U.S.

The first headache has to do with Canada’s unexpected surpassing of the United States in resettling the world’s greatest number of refugees. Resettlement is the organized transfer of refugees to countries like Canada, relocating them away from countries like Turkey and Lebanon that often host millions of refugees inside their borders. Canada’s newfound leadership has less to do with our natural benevolence, however, than with an unprecedented reduction in American refugee admissions under the Trump administration. In both Canada and the U.S., resettlement has generally enjoyed support from both conservatives and liberals. Since 1980, America has led the world both in resettling refugees and also in successfully encouraging other countries to increase their refugee intake, trends that continued until 2018. In that year, Canada resettled 28,000 refugees, up from an average of 11,000 annually in the years prior to 2015. By contrast, U.S. admissions dropped to a record low of just 23,000 in 2018, down from a 20-year average of 66,000 and a one-year record high of 96,000 in 2016.

Our Canadian moment, even if it is a moment by default, has global implications as the U.S. announces further cuts to refugee admissions in the coming year. Resettlement has acted as a fiscal and social pressure valve for countries hosting millions of refugees, some of them Canadian friends or allies, like Bangladesh and Turkey. It is also a foreign policy and national security instrument, facilitating the recruitment of translators in war zones and embarrassing strategic foes via the admission of citizens fleeing their countries. Canada must weigh these considerations, as well as humanitarian ones, against rising pressure on Canadian funds and a recent drop in public confidence in Canada’s overall immigration system. Nor do we have the same clout as the Americans in helping redistribute the refugee load more fairly throughout the world, especially now that, following the U.S. lead, more countries are reducing their resettlement programs than are expanding them.

In addition to formal resettlement, Canada faces a growing number of asylum claims. Over 170,000 asylum-seekers have sought protection here since the past federal election, 50,000 of whom crossed the border to do so — either “illegally” or “irregularly” depending on who you talk to. Both the Liberals and Conservatives have promised to staunch the flow of border crossings by renegotiating the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement and to return asylum-seekers walking across our southern border to the U.S. for processing. The current agreement applies only to official border crossings, however. A strengthened agreement could apply this arrangement to claimants crossing the border elsewhere, as well. Unfortunately, a strengthened agreement may not be in the cards. In fact, recent changes in U.S. asylum policy may hand the next prime minister a completely suspended agreement, rather than a renegotiated one, which will be bad news both for relations with the U.S. and for an already backed-up Canadian asylum system.

Under a new policy, the Americans will deport asylum-seekers if they passed through another country on their way to the U.S., even if they face a demonstrated risk of torture or persecution in their home country. This violates one of the founding principles of the Safe Third Country Agreement — namely, that countries not return asylum-seekers with credible fears to their home country. It also strengthens the possibility of a successful challenge of the agreement in a current case before the Federal Court of Canada. If the case were to result in the agreement’s suspension, asylum-seekers could make their claims directly at official border crossings without the risk of being turned back to the U.S. This would eliminate the incentive to cross the border to claim protection but it might also invite a correspondingly greater number of claims than before, as prospective claimants would have a more direct route into Canada from the U.S. Canada would not be obligated to approve their claims, but we would have to assess them, further impacting an already backlogged and beleaguered process. It would also risk offending the U.S. by in effect labelling it an unsafe country for refugees. That is not an outcome we want in a time of already tense trade relations.

The potential impact of these changes is hard to overstate. Canada has a proven track record when it comes to processing and integrating refugees. The next federal government may want to leverage our new position as the world’s number one resettlement destination to introduce its own model sponsorship program among like-minded partners on the international stage. It should also consider investing in a more rapid and flexible claim assessment system, one able to respond to large and sometimes unpredictable flows of claimants whatever agreements we do or don’t have with other countries and whatever choice they do or don’t make about re-electing mercurial leaders.

Source: The U.S. might be about to send us these two immigration and refugee problems

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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