A haven for villains
Sept 13th 2007 | VANCOUVER
From The Economist print edition
The political reasons behind Canada's controversial asylum policy
SINCE the 2001 terrorist attacks, America has been criticising Canada for lax border controls, claiming they had turned the country into a safe haven for criminals and terrorists. Canada had seemed to ignore the charge. But on August 31st Stephen Harper's minority Conservative government proudly announced that, for the first time, 80 customs officers along its border with America had been equipped with guns in a first step to arming all its 4,800 border guards by 2017.
Despite government denials, all kinds of undesirables are getting into Canada under the country's dysfunctional refugee system. While doing little to save genuine refugees in camps abroad, it has opened the door to queue-jumping economic migrants, big-time crooks and terrorists, as documented in numerous reports (notably from the federal government's security service and auditor-general) over more than 20 years. In 1999, the Americans nabbed an Algerian asylum-seeker as he tried to cross the border from Canada with explosives intended to blow up Los Angeles International Airport.
Canada is the easiest country in the developed world in which to obtain refugee status. Most countries accept no more than around 15% of all applicants, whereas Canada accepts more than half. Attracted by an entitlement to the same legal rights and social benefits as for Canadian citizens, some 25,000 asylum-seekers make their way to Canada every year. Many come from safe, but less generous, third countries, often paying people-smugglers up to $50,000 each for false passports and airline tickets.
Once in Canada, they know they will be able to stayand workthere for at least four years, while pursuing their appeals through the courts. Even if their claims are ultimately rejected, there is a good chance they will never actually be deported; the backlog of unexecuted removal orders is around 50,000. Many end up as citizens.
Canadians have become increasingly incensed by a series of high-profile cases of failed asylum-seekers who should be long gone.
The most glaring is that of Mahmoud Mohammed Issa Mohammed, a Palestinian terrorist who took part in an Israeli airline hijacking; one passenger was killed. Ordered to be deported in 1988, he is still in Canada after some 30 appeals and reviews. Lai Changxing, one of China's most wanted criminal suspects, continues to launch appeals from his Vancouver home after being ordered to leave in 2000. And Rakesh Saxena, wanted in Thailand on embezzlement charges, who also lives in Vancouver, has been fighting extradition for the past ten years.
Remembering their own immigrant roots, most Canadians like to be generous to newcomers. But another refugee case, involving a paralysed Sikh, is beginning to test their patience. After entering Canada on a false passport in 2003, Laibar Singh applied for asylum, claiming that he would be tortured if returned to his native Punjab, where he was falsely accused of being a Sikh militant. His application was turned down, three times.
Last year, he suffered a stroke that left him paralysed, unable to feed himself and dependent on state-provided medical care. Faced with imminent deportation, he sought sanctuary in July in a Sikh temple near Vancouver, but was arrested when he went to hospital to get treatment. Last month Stockwell Day, Canada's public-safety minister, granted him a 60-day reprieve on humanitarian grounds, after the Sikh community had announced plans for a big protest demonstration. It is now widely expected that Mr Singh will end up being allowed to stay in Canada.
The main reason behind the refugee mess, critics say, is politics. If the Conservatives are to have a chance of forming a majority government after the next general election, they will need to pick up seats in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where ethnic communities are concentrated. All three national political parties pander to the ethnic vote. None wants to close the back door to new immigrants.
Although the polls suggest that ordinary Canadians want the abuse to end, there is no political will. As James Bissett, former head of the Canadian immigration service, says: It might take a bomb going off here to change this system.