James Bissett: Stop bogus refugees before they get in
Canadians must be asking themselves why our government seems powerless to stop the thousands of Mexican refugee claimants who are pouring across the U.S. border. Few, if any, are genuine refugees. Most are living illegally in the United States, and are being lured to Canada by unscrupulous immigration agents.
With few exceptions, anyone who reaches Canadian territory is entitled to stick around and make a refugee claim. In 2004, citizens of 152 different countries claimed refugee status here. The very act of “claiming” that status entitles the claimant to enter our country and attend a hearing before the independent Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).
This is the heart of the problem. We are the only Western country that does not have some form of pre-screening procedure to sort out obviously fraudulent and unfounded refugee claims. As a result, the refugee route has become the preferred means for those migrants who don't want to face the hurdles, cost and paperwork associated with the normal immigration process.
The countries of the European Union refuse to accept claims from people coming from countries considered to be “safe” for refugees — i.e., people coming from other countries that follow civilized norms, such as the U.S. or Mexico. Canada did have such a provision in the Immigration Act of 1989, giving Cabinet the power to list countries considered to be “safe.” But this provision was never enacted because of opposition from the refugee lobby. Current law provides for a “safe” country list, but only if the country to be listed agrees. Since it is not in the interest of countries to enter into such an agreement — nations have little interest in having fraudulent refugee claimants returned to their shores — this provision has proven ineffective.
Because of the high volume of claimants in Canada, it can take a year or more before a refugee hearing takes place. In the meantime, the claimant is permitted to work or receive welfare and other benefits. This is a costly process. It is estimated the cost of maintaining one refugee is approximately $10,000-$12,000 per year. Even if the IRB finds the claimant is not a genuine refugee, there still is a good chance of the person remaining in Canada. Refugee claimants are protected under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and can use dilatory legal processes to delay removal for years.
Furthermore, there is little effort by enforcement officials to find and deport rejected claimants. Four years ago, the auditor-general reported to Parliament that there were 36,000 outstanding warrants for the arrest of rejected claimants. Since then, that number has undoubtedly increased.
The current Mexican influx has plenty of precedents. The first large-scale assault on the system was in 1980, when large numbers of Sikhs from India arrived as visitors and then submitted refugee claims. To stop the flow, the government imposed a visitor visa requirement on all citizens of India.
Since that time, the visitor visa has been the weapon of choice used by Canada to prevent country-specific floods of refugee claimants. Following the India example, visitor visas have been imposed on a number of countries, including: Portugal, Turkey, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Slovakia and Costa Rica.
These countries have not been happy about being targeted in this way. Some have retaliated by imposing visas on Canadians. More recently, the European Union has warned that it will take “appropriate measures” if Canada does not exempt its eight new members from a visa requirements. Obviously, visitor visas are not an ideal fix for our refugee problem.
A far more comprehensive long-term solution would be for Canada to overhaul the refugee system itself. Our government needs to have the power to unilaterally declare certain countries as “safe.” That way, our country would not have to pick up the tab every time racketeers in some foreign country decide to flood our shores with bogus refugees.
-James Bissett is a retired ambassador and former head of the Canadian Immigration Service.