Offering asylum is about more than opening borders

  • November 15, 2017

A good host makes sure that there is enough food and drink and other amenities to make those invited to the party feel welcome and comfortable. Canada is in danger of being a bad host to its most recent arrivals.

Asylum-seekers have been streaming across the Canada-U.S. border since last winter, thanks to an unwelcoming environment in the U.S. and the prime minister’s announcement in January that they would be welcome in Canada.

However sincere Canada might be about wanting to accept people fleeing war and persecution in their home countries, the fact is that the departmental infrastructure was already having trouble keeping up with the number of regular immigration applications, without the burden caused by the influx of irregular arrivals over the last 10 months – the Immigration and Refugee Board predicts 40,000 new refugee claims by the end of 2017. Canada is faced with the challenge of balancing the need to protect the integrity of the border and security of Canadians with the humanitarian impulse to extend a helping hand to non-Canadians in need of protection.

The CBA’s Immigration Law Section has written to officials at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada offering its input on policy and legislative options to address the issue of asylum seekers.

Money and accurate information are two key factors. A third would be removing unnecessary barriers to immigration, including prohibitions on refugee applicants applying under provincial nomination programs, and amending federal law to exempt refugee claimants who otherwise qualify for immigration in an economic class.

First of all, more funding is imperative. Cuts to funding for legal aid for immigrants and refugees was already a problem, addressed in an earlier submission, and it is a crucial factor but it’s not the only place where more money could be a big help. The Refugee Protection Division, which was already struggling to process a backlog of thousands of claims, could use the money to appoint more high-quality decision makers to support fair and efficient processing of claims – and using subject matter experts would reduce the number of claims sent for redetermination, which create unnecessary costs for the Minister, the Immigration and Refugee Board and legal aid agencies.

Money is not, however, the only answer. Providing accurate information to asylum-seekers about their available options can also save time and resources.

For example, the materials they receive now suggest that all refugee claimants are entitled to receive government-funded legal aid and social services, when in fact if the asylum-seekers have financial means they must retain their own counsel. They should also be informed that as soon as they are found eligible to claim, they are entitled to apply for a work permit.

“This information would help refugee claimants understand that there are options for legal services beyond legal aid, and that they do not necessarily need to rely on government-funded social services while they wait for their claims to be heard. It would also help to decrease the financial strain on legal aid and other public services,” the Section writes.

There should also be an outreach campaign to correct inaccurate information about the prospects for success in the Canadian asylum system, and to point eligible would-be refugees to other programs that could serve as points of entry, for example the Federal Skilled Worker or the Federal Skilled Trades Program, work permits under free trade agreements, the Mobilité Francophone program, and others.

“With a better understanding of Canadian asylum law and procedures, potential asylum-seekers may be more likely to choose options that are better suited to their unique circumstances.”

Having well-trained duty counsel available at refugee intake offices to advise refugee claimants, free of charge, about the likely success of their claims and to offer information about other programs, “could stop potential irregular border crossers from making uninformed decisions and proceeding with meritless refugee claims.”

Other suggestions include:

  • Develop opportunities for in-demand low-skilled workers
  • Amend Express Entry criteria to give points for dreamers
  • Permit family-class members to be processed in Canada
  • Expand eligibility for self-supporting refugees
  • Expand options for decision-making outside Canada
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