OTTAWA — Candidates for leadership of Canada’s opposition Conservative Party are calling for drastic measures to halt the flow of asylum seekers fleeing the United States into Canada, including deployment of the Canadian army to detain would-be refugees as they cross the border.
This get-tough approach reflects public opinion surveys that show a hardening of attitudes among some Canadians toward the asylum seekers and immigration in general, placing political pressure on the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Canadian news recently has been full of images of migrants trudging across snow-covered fields and through icy ditches, hauling small children and suitcases as they cross into Quebec, Manitoba and other provinces from U.S. border states. The phenomenon has gained momentum since Donald Trump was elected president in November.
Kevin O’Leary, a reality-TV celebrity and neophyte politician who has taken a Trumplike approach to his quest for the Conservative leadership, says illegal crossings are “unacceptable” and that Canada must beef up its border security to avert a flood of refugees. “I don’t want what’s happening in Europe to happen in Canada,” he said in a recent campaign video.
O’Leary, considered a leading contender in the May 27 leadership vote, seeks a new law to prevent asylum seekers from getting refugee hearings if they cross the border illegally. He admits the measure would contravene Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms but wants to use a special constitutional clause to permit an override of those protections.
Another top leadership hopeful, Maxime Bernier, a member of Parliament from Quebec, would go even further. If more police and the border security agents fail to stop the flow of migrants, “I would look at additional temporary measures, including deploying Canadian forces in troubled border areas,” he said.
According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the force intercepted 1,134 asylum seekers crossing the border outside regular ports of entry in January and February, with most of the crossings taking place in Quebec, British Columbia and Manitoba. The force said it does not have comparable figures for the same period in 2016.
Under a 2002 agreement with the United States, asylum seekers must make their claims in the first safe country where they arrive, or they can be turned back. That means asylum claimants arriving at a Canadian land border can be rejected automatically when coming from the United States. But there is an exception if refugees cross into Canada unofficially and then make their claim.
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said that “it’s 150 percent politics” that is motivating the Conservative leadership aspirants. “How many thousands of kilometers of border are we talking about? Are we going to have military patrols along the border?” Neve said.
He also noted that the numbers remain small compared with the thousands of asylum seekers and resettled refugees who enter Canada every year, including 40,000 refugees from Syria.
“I think it’s important not to suggest that we are even remotely in the realm of a crisis,” he said.
An Ipsos survey published last week by Thomson-Reuters said 48 percent of respondents wanted the migrants returned to the United States, while 36 percent wanted to allow them to remain and seek refugee status. Another poll conducted for Radio-Canada, the French service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., showed that although most Canadians still see immigration as a strength for the country, 37 percent think there is too much of it and 25 percent want to see a Trump-like ban on Muslim immigration.
The Trudeau government hit back at suggestions that the border situation was out of control.
“There is no ‘free ticket to Canada’ for those attempting to slip across the border,” said an official in the office of Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. “Once irregular crossers are on Canadian soil, they are apprehended, identified, subject to security and health checks and dealt with according to Canadian law.”
Osaa Ahmed, a 37-year-old Ghanaian, is one of the irregular crossers now safely in Canada. He told The Washington Post that he fled Ghana last year to escape discrimination for his sexual orientation. He flew to Ecuador and then traveled through Colombia, Central America and Mexico with the aim of getting to the United States.
When Ahmed reached the U.S. border at Brownsville, Texas, he presented himself to U.S. authorities and asked for asylum. “They next thing I knew, they chained me up,” he said. After initially being detained in Texas, he was transferred to a jail in Pennsylvania where he had a hearing with immigration authorities. His request for asylum was denied.
Freed while awaiting deportation to Ghana, Ahmed traveled to Minneapolis, where a friend suggested he seek asylum in Canada. In November, he took a bus to Grand Forks, North Dakota, got into a taxi with a fellow Ghanaian and headed to the border.
“He dropped us in a farm field. He pointed us to some lights and told us to go there,” Ahmed said. They ended up walking for six or seven hours through the night before turning up in the town of Emerson, Manitoba.
Police took them to border officials, who registered and fingerprinted them. “They gave us hot tea and a warm blanket because all our clothes were wet,” Ahmed said.
He then traveled to Winnipeg, where he had his refugee hearing Feb. 22.
“I was granted refugee status in Canada,” Ahmed said. “I’m so happy.” He is sharing an apartment, waiting for his work permit and planning to return to university.
“It’s excellent,” he said. “Much, much better than the U.S. Here in Canada, they give you respect.”