Asylum seekers who show up at Canada’s border, including irregular border crossers, are not “jumping the queue” as Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer suggested in Thursday night’s Maclean’s/Citytv national leaders debate.
In fact, there is no queue.
In response to criticism from Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who said Scheer acts “as if people are illegals” when they come to Canada as refugees, Scheer said there is nothing compassionate about making people in refugee camps abroad wait longer by processing the claims of people who show up at Canada’s border first.
“There’s nothing compassionate about forcing people to wait longer who are in refugee camps, in places where there is civil war, where they will be killed if they leave those camps, where they have to wait longer because some people are skipping the line and jumping the queue,” Scheer said.
The problem with this logic is that the two systems to which Scheer referred — one in which people make claims at the border or after arriving in Canada and another in which refugees are “resettled” in Canada after being processed overseas by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) — are two completely different systems that have no “direct” or “explicit” links, experts say.
“There is no queue,” said Christina Clark-Kazak, a public affairs professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in forced migration. “So this is problematic to be using this language because, under international law, people have the right to make an asylum claim.”
Scheer also said he believes in an “orderly” immigration system that’s fair to everyone.
“I will, as prime minister, continue to ensure that Canada has an immigration system that welcomes people from all around the world. We must do so on three important pillars: our system must be fair, it must be orderly, and it must be compassionate,” Scheer said.
Under both Canadian and international law, Canada has an obligation to process asylum claims made by people who come to the border or who make a claim once in Canada.
Claims are generally processed in the order in which they are received by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) and have nothing to do with refugees in UN-run camps around the world.
Refugees who enter Canada through the resettlement process do so after being identified by the UNHCR as priority cases because they face an especially high degree of risk. This was the case for the roughly 40,000 Syrian refugees Canada has resettled since 2016.
Unlike people who make claims at the border, resettled refugees typically arrive in Canada as permanent residents, meaning they are on a pathway to citizenship and have full employment, health care and social service opportunities.
A Conservative spokesperson did not respond directly to questions about whether Scheer knew his claim about queue-jumping was inaccurate. The spokesperson did, however, say crossing the border between a point of entry is “illegal” and that resources should be spent on the most vulnerable, not on those who “made it to a safe country like the United States.”
“Resources that are spent on processing illegal border crossers are not available to be spent helping people who really need it. That is why a Conservative government led by Andrew Scheer will close the loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement,” said spokesperson Simon Jefferies.
Global News asked if a Conservative government would increase the number of UN-resettled refugees Canada accepts each year. Jefferies did not provide any numbers, but pointed to a speech Scheer gave earlier this year where he said Conservatives “will do more to promote private sponsorship of refugees.”
Since April 2017, the IRB has approved roughly 9,000 irregular border crossers for refugee protection.
Scheer ‘conflating’ two ideas
The idea that people who flee persecution and arrive at the Canadian border to make a refugee claim are somehow gaming the system is not accurate, Clark-Kazak said.
“He is conflating two very different processes,” she said. “It is a first-come, first-served kind of system.”
And even if Canada decided to resettle fewer UN refugees because of unusually high numbers of “inland” claims, Clark-Kazak said this would be a discretionary decision that’s up to the government and is not in any way directly linked to the number of claims at the border.
In 2018, according to the UNHCR, Canada resettled more UN refugees than any other country, accepting 28,100 people. The U.S., which typically takes in the highest number, fell to second on the list, accepting just under 23,000 people.
Past claims of ‘queue-jumping’
In total, Canada has received roughly 130,000 refugee claims since the start of 2017. About 45,000 of these were made by irregular border crossers.
There have been accusations of so-called “queue-jumping” ever since this large influx of irregular migrants began.
However, government bureaucrats and immigration officials have been clear that refugees who show up at the border, including irregular migrants, are not skipping the line.
The people crossing irregularly are doing so to avoid being sent back to the United States under the Safe Third Country Agreement. Critics, including many Conservative Party commentators, have called this process a “loophole” and demanded that the Liberal government stop it.
But when it comes to the order in which their claims are heard, irregular border crossers are treated no differently than any other claimant.
In 2019, the government also implemented new policies that could result in fewer irregular border crossers by saying anyone who has made a claim in another country, such as the U.S., would be blocked from making a claim in Canada. This includes irregular border crossers.
While asylum seekers who make claims in Canada do not automatically receive permanent resident status, they are allowed to remain in Canada while their claims are being heard.
Delays in processing and a backlog of roughly 77,000 cases at the IRB means this process takes, on average, between 18 and 24 months.
When claims are being processed, asylum seekers have access to health care through the Interim Federal Health Program, plus social services paid for by the provinces. Refugees are also allowed to go to work and children can attend school.
Once claims are denied and all appeals have been exhausted, the Canada Border Services Agency must act to remove failed claimants as quickly as possible.
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