Reality check: Will Andrew Scheer’s ideas for the border work?
OTTAWA – Since January, the RCMP have detained more than 10,000 people who have crossed illegally into Canada, most of them seeking asylum.
The federal Liberals say they have the situation under control, but Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says more needs to be done to stop people from coming, not just manage them once they arrive.
He’s set forward three ideas:
- Designate the two main unofficial crossings they’re using as formal points of entry
- Apply the Safe Third Country agreement across the entire Canada-U.S. border, as opposed to just at formal border points
- Use an existing law to deem those arriving as irregular migrants
Would any of these options have the impact Scheer says they will?
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 “some baloney.” Here’s why.
Emerson, Man., and Lacolle, Que., are the entry points for the vast majority of people who’ve crossed illegally into Canada since January.
It’s an illegal entry, because there are no official customs offices there and Canadian law requires that people seeking entry to Canada present themselves at customs offices. Since they’re seeking asylum, however, they can’t be charged.
WATCH: Asylum seekers stealing opportunities from those facing ‘real persecution,’ says Scheer
If the federal government wanted to deem those two places as formal points of entry, they could turn to section six of the Customs Act.
It declares: “The minister may designate customs offices inside or outside Canada for a specified purpose or generally for business relating to customs and may at any time amend, cancel or reinstate any such designation.”
Why would that matter?
The reason the asylum seekers are entering where they are is the Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the U.S.
The deal stipulates that if someone shows up at a formal land border crossing for either country and requests asylum, they will be turned back, though there are some exceptions. The agreement is based on the principle that those seeking refugee status must request it in the country they arrive in after fleeing their country of alleged persecution.
So if the two entry points were made official, or if the Safe Third Country agreement was amended to apply across the entire land border, no matter where a claimant enters from the U.S., they’d be barred from making an asylum claim in Canada.
The irregular arrivals provision Scheer references is another issue. It’s a law enacted in 2012 that gives the government the power to designate a group of arrivals as “irregular,” which subjects them to mandatory detention, and they also lose certain avenues of appeal related to their refugee claims.
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
Luc Portelance, former head of the Canada Border Services Agency, said while in theory Lacolle and Emerson could be declared formal points of entry, it’s not that simple.
The reason the Safe Third Country agreement works is that both the U.S. and Canada agree to take back people turned away at the land border, because it can be proven they were trying to enter from either country. At official ports of entry, there are officers from each country on guard.
If Lacolle and Emerson were deemed official ports, there would need to be U.S. officials on the other side, because otherwise, who receives the rejected asylum seekers?
“You have to take them to the port of entry and turn them over, and now you’ve brought them inland,” Portelance said.
That’s where international refugee law would kick in and they would have a right to an asylum claim, points out Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the United Nations refugee agency representative in Ottawa.
WATCH: What’s the plan for asylum seekers entering Canada?
The same goes for just expanding the agreement to cover the entire border. Again, the U.S. would need to agree to accept the people being sent back.
“Does anyone expect that Donald Trump’s administration would agree to changes to an international agreement with Canada in terms of responsibility sharing vis-a-vis asylum seekers when the only thing he seems to be interested in is to not have to have any responsibility towards asylum seekers at all?” said longtime refugee lawyer Lorne Waldman.
Whether the irregular arrivals legislation could act as a deterrent is an open question.
An oft-cited 2011 paper published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said there’s no empirical evidence to back up the assertion that the threat of being detained deters irregular migration.
“Global migration statistics have been rising regardless of increasingly harsh governmental policies on detention,” the paper noted.
Australia has had mandatory detention for asylum seekers arriving via boat since the 1990s. But a 2011 study found the policy had only a marginal effect on arrival numbers, noting those were more closely linked with the outbreak or escalation of conflicts in countries like Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the Liberals and others have pointed out, the world is currently experiencing an unprecedented pattern of human migration, which is difficult to predict or stop.
Although over the summer there were upwards of 200 people crossing into Canada a day, the daily numbers are believed to now number in the dozens — without any of the changes Scheer proposes.
While the government might be able to unilaterally implement Scheer’s changes without agreement from the U.S., they would be unlikely to stop the flow of asylum seekers. And the research shows detention is not necessarily a deterrent.
So, for these reasons, Scheer’s assertion that his measures would deal with the problem contains some baloney.