Liberals go for votes with new hard line on asylum seekers
The sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Canada from the United States since Donald Trump took office in early 2017 has sparked a political crisis that many feel could help bring down Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government in this fall’s federal election.
Up until now, the Trudeau government has approached the asylum seeker issue by stressing Canada’s human rights obligations, namely the right of anyone claiming asylum in Canada to a fair hearing.
Asserting this moral high ground has been a calculated gamble, one that has distinguished the Liberals from their chief rival, the Conservative Party of Canada, and its calls for tighter border security.
While it’s been effective at positioning Canada as a much-needed counterweight to nativist governments in the United States and Europe, the Liberal strategy has failed to calm mounting public concern in Canada for the integrity of our borders and immigration system.
The Liberals have now moved to correct this with tough new rules governing asylum claims that would deny the right of some claimants to a full and independent hearing.
Buried in a nearly 400-page omnibus budget bill, the legislation would deny a full and independent hearing to anyone who has already claimed asylum with one of Canada’s partners in the so-called Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which includes the United States.
Canada’s Minister of Border Security, Bill Blair, said refusing asylum hearings to those with existing claims in one of the Five Eye countries would prevent what he called “asylum shopping.”
The legislation caught friend and political foe alike off-guard and prompted a sharp rebuke from the Canadian Council of Refugees, Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and the Canadian and B.C. civil liberties associations.
In a letter addressed to Trudeau, the groups condemned the new rules as “harsh and unnecessary” and said their inclusion in the omnibus budget bill was “undemocratic.”
“These cases involve incredibly high stakes for the claimants, including questions of persecution and torture, of being able to live freely in accordance with one’s identity and culture with protection for fundamental human rights, and even of questions of life and death,” the letter reads.
The groups also took umbrage with Blair’s “asylum shopping” reference, calling it “simplistic and inaccurate.”
“We know from our collective experience that there is a wide range of legitimate reasons why refugee claimants may seek Canada’s protection after having filed a claim elsewhere,” the groups wrote. “They must be given the opportunity to do so.”
The criticism, however, has not been unanimous. An editorial in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper welcomed the new rules, saying they may be out of sync with the Liberals’ earlier rhetoric but they “are in line with how Canadian governments of all stripes have dealt with immigration over the past few decades.”
This conclusion, however, overlooks the 1985 Singh v. Canada ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that found refugee claimants cannot be deported back to their country of origin without an independent hearing. Under the new rules, affected claimants would only be entitled to a pre-removal risk assessment by an immigration official. This makes it likely they will be challenged in court.
As much as I’m for policies that protect the integrity of our immigration system, I’m opposed to politicizing immigration policy for electoral gain, which certainly feels like the case here. As the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation noted, only 3,150 of the roughly 40,000 people who have claimed asylum in Canada since April 2017 had applied previously for asylum in the U.S.
Frankly, it’s hard to see the point these new policies will serve beyond trying to secure votes that likely fled the Liberals long ago, if they were ever theirs to begin with.
This new hard line on asylum seekers may only end up costing the Liberals votes, and that’s something they simply can’t afford right now.
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