August 10, 2017 10:20 am
Updated: August 10, 2017 10:38 am

Reality check: Immigration minister says Quebec not dealing with ‘mass arrival’ of asylum seekers

Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, holds a news conference in Ottawa.

Fred Chartrand/CP
A A

OTTAWA — Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen was warned by his officials that irregular crossings across the Canadian border could be on the rise this summer, which would require him to rethink the way the Liberal government is handling the situation.

Story continues below

But the minister said what his officials were talking about in the briefing note, which the CBC obtained under the Access to Information Act, was not the increased stream of asylum seekers crossing into Quebec from the United States in the last few weeks, but a “mass arrival” scenario.

READ MORE: Canadian Army sets up tents at Lacolle border to welcome asylum seekers

“They were talking generally there about a much, much higher mass arrival situation – not what we’re dealing with. What we’re dealing with is definitely a very high, steady increase of numbers and it is obviously taxing our agencies and our borders, but we are able to redeploy resources and personnel as needed and able to deal with the situation as it unfolds,” Hussen said on CBC’s The House on Sunday.

READ MORE: With spike in asylum seekers, Montreal’s Olympic Stadium to be used as shelter

Are the asylum-seekers in Quebec really outside the realm of massive, irregular arrivals as the minister suggests?

Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).

This one earns a rating of “no baloney.”

WHY IT MATTERS

The previous Conservative government encountered a scenario in 2010 when the MV Sun Sea, a ship carrying 492 Tamil migrants who intended to claim refugee status, was intercepted off the B.C. coast. Another vessel, the MV Ocean Lady, had arrived with 76 Sri Lankan migrants the year before.

The Conservative government responded with a crackdown on so-called irregular arrivals, including legislation aimed at helping them respond more quickly – and more aggressively – should the situation happen again.

If today’s government considers the asylum seekers in Quebec part of a mass arrival, it could use that legislation to respond – but the provisions are widely considered to be a blunt instrument.

THE FACTS

Over the past few weeks, the number of people passing illegally into Canada from the U.S. near the border crossing in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., has risen steadily, and is now about 250 or 300 people every day.

Many of the asylum seekers are originally from Haiti and decided to make a move after the U.S. government said it might end a program that granted them temporary protection from being deported after a deadly earthquake struck the impoverished island nation in 2010.

There have been reports that many were motivated by false rumours that getting into Canada would be easy.

WATCH: Will Trump’s immigration policy push have an effect on Canada?

Another motivating factor is the Safe Third Country Agreement that Canada has with his southern neighbour, which prevents anyone who tries to enter Canada from the U.S. at an official border point from making an asylum claim, requiring them to do so in the U.S. So, asylum-seekers enter Canada at unofficial crossings instead.

The Liberal government has been under some pressure to suspend the deal to allow the border crossers a safer entry into Canada.

The Liberal government does not think the situation has reached the point where there is a need to do anything more than move people through the existing process, but Hussen said he will revisit things if the numbers keep rising.

READ MORE: Expert lauds proposal to remove ‘patronizing’ duty to ‘get a job’ from citizenship study guide

The Conservatives handled things differently.

In 2012, they brought in changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to allow the public safety minister to declare any group of two or more asylum seekers part of an “irregular arrival,” either because they cannot be examined “in a timely manner,” or the minister suspects human smuggling was involved.

The asylum seekers become “designated foreign nationals,” which means automatic arrest and mandatory detention, potentially for months on end, and, even if their claims are validated, further restrictions including a five-year ban on becoming a permanent resident.

WATCH: Montrealers rally in support of asylum seekers

Vic Toews, who was then public safety minister, retroactively designated several groups of Romanian asylum seekers – a total of 85 people – to be “irregular arrivals” in December 2012.

Not all of their asylum claims ended up being heard. The Immigration and Refugee Board said about half the claims were abandoned or withdrawn and while the Canada Border Services Agency believes the majority have left the country, they cannot say for sure.

THE EXPERTS

The Canadian Press interviewed immigration experts who see a big difference between mass, irregular arrivals like the B.C.-bound ships and the recent surge of people crossing into Quebec.

That is why they do not believe the Liberal government would – or should – invoke the controversial provisions the Conservatives brought in.

“They were effectively designed to help border officials contend with very large arrivals . . . particularly for folks where it may be difficult to identify and separate who is genuine from who is not and who might be a security risk,” said Sharry Aiken, an associate professor at Queen’s University who specializes in immigration and refugee law.

“(It was) also to serve as a deterrent to organized and orchestrated international criminal organizations that underpin the smuggling operations,” she said.

READ MORE: Haitian government officials come to Montreal to show solidarity with asylum seekers

Steven Meurrens, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer, said he does not think that is the case here.

“I wouldn’t think that travelling domestically in the United States to the Quebec border is something that requires that big an organized crime element,” he wrote in an email.

Jamie Liew, an assistant law professor at the University of Ottawa, said the irregular arrival provisions give the minister such broad discretionary powers that the Liberal government could likely find a way to apply them here if they wanted to.

“It’s extremely easy to meet this legal threshold,” said Liew, who specializes in immigration and refugee law.

Liew said the Liberals are not the ones who brought in the provisions, but noted they are also not doing anything to get rid of them.

WATCH: What screening measures are vetting asylum seekers?

“I think they like the idea of having it in their back pocket, to be able to deal with mass movements of people,” she said.

She thinks, however, that this would be politically difficult.

“I think there is growing understanding in the public that these people are leaving for very legitimate reasons,” she said.

“They’re fleeing persecution in their country, they’re leaving the United States where they are not being treated fairly, and so to treat them as quasi-criminals through this legislation by detaining them immediately upon the border may be seen as problematic.”

Public Safety Canada did not respond to questions in time for publication.

THE VERDICT

Aiken said Hussen’s comments suggest he was keeping his options open should the asylum numbers keep climbing, but he was likely thinking in terms of changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement.

“It is still a trickle, in relative terms, if you look at the situation facing many countries on the front lines in Europe,” said Aiken.

For this reason, Hussen’s statement contains “no baloney.”

METHODOLOGY

The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:

© 2017 The Canadian Press

Report an error

Comments

Want to discuss? Please read our Commenting Policy first.