By James Bissett, Former ambassador and Head of the Canadian immigration service from 1985 t0 1990
(This OP ED was published in The National Post on August 3, 2018)

Our federal government is clearly unwilling or unable to stop the flow of asylum seekers entering Canada illegally from the United States. Once on Canadian territory they can apply for refugee status, because unlike most countries we allow anyone who manages to get into Canada to submit a claim. Once they are in, whether found to be a refugee or not, it is unlikely they will be removed.

It is difficult to estimate the enormous costs of processing and caring for the thousands of asylum seekers who enter Canada each year. Officials now estimate the costs range from $13,000 to $20,000 each. But this estimate doesn’t take into account the long – term costs of maintaining claimants who are awaiting their refugee hearings or who have been accepted but still require financial help.

In 2008 Canada received 37,000 asylum seekers and 60% of those were expected to be refused. At that time the government estimated the cost of each failed claimant to be $ 50,000. The Canadian tax payer faced a bill of approximately $1.11 billon to deal with failed cases. This is what will force our government into making urgent reforms The sooner the better.

Canada’s asylum system is dysfunctional and has been for 30 years. Reforms have been fiercely opposed by a powerful refugee lobby consisting of immigration lawyers, non-governmental organizations, church groups who sincerely believe that these people deserve help, and politicians, who choose not to recognize the problem.

So what can be done to reform the mess we now find ourselves in?

First, we must understand what our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention actually are. The Convention, established in 1951 as a follow up to the mass displacement of people after the Second World War, was carefully worded to ensure that it would not in any way infringe upon the principle of national sovereignty and the sanctity of borders. Its definition of a refugee was narrow and specific: “anyone who owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it…”

The core principle is that a genuine refugee cannot be returned to a country that presents a threat to his life or freedom. This is the heart of the Convention and it does not demand much beyond that fundamental obligation.

It does not require any state to accept refugees. It does not tell states how to adjudicate claims. It does not include in its definition people fleeing war or natural disasters. It does not condone illegal entry unless the individual enters the asylum country direct from the country of persecution. It does not include people who are internally displaced in their own country. Canada has chosen to enact laws and regulations that go beyond what is required by the Convention.

Rethinking our own processes are just a first step to solving our problem. The next step is to stop the flow across the border. This means changing our rules to prevent anyone from submitting a refugee claim who is either a citizen of a “safe country” is a non citizen residing in or passing through a “safe country.” The government has the power to designate countries as “safe” for refugees.. These are usually defined as countries that are signatories to the UN Convention, are democratic, follow the rule of law, and have a good human rights record.

Canada has no obligation to accept asylum claims from people who are not in danger of persecution. People who have entered illegally should be arrested and quickly returned to where they came from – the United States primarily – after a removal order has been issued. Their right of appeal can be heard after their removal at a later date. Though it is technically possible that the U.S. would refuse to accept them back, that would be violating long standing customs and common practice for shared borders (and we wouldn’t know until we tried).

It is not necessary to have a quasi-judicial body such as the Immigration Refugee Board adjudicate refugee claims. These decisions should not be delegated to a board of politically appointed members responsible only to themselves, and who may, or may not, have the experience, training, or knowledge to render quality decisions about who is or who is not a refugee. Furthermore, because it allows unlimited access to its deliberations, it has suffered with backlog problems from its inception and the current crisis is just another example.

In most countries asylum claims are made by professional refugee officers or judges. They have the background and expertise to make quality decisions quickly. They can be located in various parts of the country thus improving and speeding up the asylum process.

The asylum problem has preoccupied Western governments for more than 40 years. The true victims have been genuine refugees, mainly women and children who, desperately need help, but the enormous costs of dealing with asylum seekers who won’t meet that standard bog down this vital system. Canada now has the opportunity to reform its dysfunctional processes and get its own house in order. Now would be a good time.

James Bissett is a former ambassador and was head of the Canadian immigration service from 1985 t0 1990(published in the National Post 3 August 2018