Over 90 per cent of Canadians think the government’s current approach to dealing with asylum seekers in Canada needs to change, a new poll from Ipsos reveals.
While respondents to the survey were sharply divided on exactly how the rules should be adjusted, just 8 per cent said they were content with the status quo as more and more asylum seekers make their way across the border illegally.
The poll, conducted on behalf of Global News between March 22 and 23, found that that a slim majority (52 per cent) think that the rules should change so that all migrants crossing into Canada from the United States are treated equally — either they should all be sent packing (12 per cent want that to happen), or they should all be permitted to seek asylum in Canada (40 per cent).
Currently, refugees who cross into Canada at a legal border checkpoint are sent back to the U.S. under the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires that an asylum claim be made in the first safe country in which a refugee sets foot (there are a few exceptions for minors or people trying to join their family).
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But refugee claimants who enter Canada illegally, wandering through fields and across highways, are arrested and brought to an immigration official, where they can make a claim regardless of the fact that they came from the United States.
They are effectively taking advantage of a loophole.
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Among the 48 per cent of poll respondents who said asylum seekers should be treated differently depending on how they cross the border, a significant chunk (40 per cent) supported reversing the current rules. That would mean those arriving illegally would be sent back to the U.S., while those arriving legally would be permitted to apply for refugee status.
The remaining 8 per cent of respondents said the current regulations are fine.
“For Canadians it’s not either a discussion about compassion or a discussion about security; it’s a discussion about rules,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs.
“Regardless of your views of immigration in general, there’s an overall perspective among Canadians that rules must make sense, and they must be followed.”
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In that sense, these numbers aren’t about refugees or how Canadians feel about newcomers in general, Bricker added, but about fairness.
“Even if you’re a person who is pro (immigration), you want the system to be one that’s humane, and regulated … and one that everybody will follow,” he said.
“The problem is right now, all three things I just described don’t seem to be happening.”
The federal government has no immediate plans to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, but Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has expressed concern over migrants trying to make the journey to Canada in adverse conditions, like snowstorms or spring floods. The Liberals say they are monitoring the situation carefully.
Goodale’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Bricker said that if Ottawa wants to align with public opinion on this issue, the government must “clarify the rules, make sure they’re applied appropriately, and be seen to be doing both.”
The poll found significant variation in opinion depending on where Canadians live, with residents of the Prairies more likely to express concern about border security and to take a hard line on immigration policy.
In Alberta, for instance, 20 per cent of respondents said all asylum seekers should be treated the same and sent back to the U.S. as soon as they arrive on Canadian soil.
Meanwhile, the number of respondents who agreed that “Canada’s border security is as strong as it needs to be to protect both our sovereignty and the personal safety of Canadians” was far lower in Alberta (33 per cent) and in Saskatchewan/Manitoba (44 per cent) compared to other regions. Everywhere else, the proportion of those agreeing was above 60 per cent.
“What will likely happen is those flash-points will be the places that you’ll see this issue move,” Bricker predicted.
Low levels of awareness
While asylum seekers crossing from the U.S. into Canada have dominated national headlines in recent weeks, the poll also revealed that many Canadians still don’t have a firm grasp of how the system deals with these people when they arrive.
Ipsos found that a little more than half of Canadians (55 per cent) say they are aware of the rules (21 per cent very aware and 34 per cent somewhat) governing who can, and cannot, make a refugee claim.
The other 45 per cent said they were not familiar with the rules, and nearly a quarter of respondents admitted they had no knowledge whatsoever of how the system works.
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Bricker said.
“Until this becomes front-page news and people really start to get into the details of it and it becomes the number one issue facing the country, the extent that people will pay attention to the letter of the law probably will not be that high.”
But this issue is climbing in terms of public concern, he added, and it’s likely that trend will continue as the temperature warms and more people make the journey north.
The number of people crossing into Canada by land and making asylum claims increased more than six-fold in Quebec for the month of February, as compared to the same month last year. The number quadrupled in the Prairies, and that was in the dead of winter.
“(If) we’re talking not a couple of people coming across, but busloads coming across, that’s when it really becomes problematic,” Bricker said.
“Because that’s when it looks like the rules are unclear, to the extent that they exist they’re being violated, and the government is out of control.”
This Ipsos poll was conducted between March 22 and March 23, 2017, on behalf of Global News. For this survey, a sample of 1,001 Canadians from Ipsos’ online panel was interviewed online. Weighting was then employed to balance demographics to ensure that the sample’s composition reflects that of the adult population according to Census data and to provide results intended to approximate the sample universe. The precision of Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll is accurate to within +/ – 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20, had all Canadian adults been polled.