Reality check: Is Canada facing an asylum seeker ‘crisis?’

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says Canada's asylum seeker situation is now a crisis. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

OTTAWA – For the better part of two years, federal Conservatives have been blasting Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government for failing to stem the tide of asylum seekers flowing across unofficial border crossings from the United States to make claims for refugee status in Canada. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says the situation is now a crisis.

“I think any time you have a government that allows 30,000 people over the course of a short period of time to come into Canada illegally, the impact that that has, that is a crisis,” Scheer said on Aug. 3.

But is it?

Ontario’s new Conservative government agrees with Scheer, and is calling on Ottawa to pick up the $200-million tab for housing, education and social assistance the province has provided so far to the refugee claimants. So far, the federal government has provided just $11 million for housing costs.

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It has also given $3 million to Manitoba and $36 million to Quebec, where the bulk of the crossings have occurred.

In June, Toronto Mayor John Tory urgently called on both the province and the feds to help house some 3,000 asylum seekers in his city, warning that emergency shelter space had run out. The city estimates the cost for housing refugee claimants in 2017 and this year will reach nearly $65 million.

This month, some 600 refugee claimants in Toronto have been moved out of temporary quarters in college dormitories into federally funded hotel rooms.

The situation is “a challenge,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale has insisted, “but it is not a crisis.”

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An Angus Reid poll earlier this month suggests Canadians disagree: two-thirds of respondents said they agree the influx of irregular border crossers is a crisis.

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In an interview with CBC’s “Power and Politics” earlier this month, Scheer characterized the asylum seekers as coming from safe havens in the U.S., crossing illegally into Canada to get almost instant processing of their refugee claims while refugees already settled here wait years to bring in loved ones trapped in refugee camps overseas.

“That’s not fair, it’s not right for people to jump the queue like that,” he said. “That’s why I think Canadians are rightly concerned about this.”

Public opinion may be on Scheer’s side, but do the facts bear out his claim of a crisis?

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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 ranking of “full of baloney.” Here’s why.


Last year, 18,116 asylum seekers skirted official ports of entry to walk across the border into Canada at unauthorized crossings, mainly in Quebec.

According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, another 12,378 crossed over in the first seven months of 2018, suggesting this year’s total will be similar.

Still, the irregular border crossers accounted for just over one-third of the total number of people who made refugees claims in Canada last year – 50,469 in all. The other two-thirds made claims after arriving in the country through official ports of entry.

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The total does not include people who sought refugee status outside of Canada or who were sponsored privately or by the government to come to Canada from overseas refugee camps – those individuals are dealt with separately, their cases are not affected by the spike in border crossers and are not processed by the Immigration and Refugee Board, which adjudicates only those claims made in Canada.

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The IRB has processed only a tiny fraction of irregular border crossers’ claims thus far – fewer than 3,500 by the end of March, almost half of whom were determined to be genuine refugees.

Last year’s 50,000-plus total represents a big jump over the previous five years, when annual in-Canada refugee claims averaged an unusually low 17,000. But Canada has contended with comparable numbers in the past. In 2001, for instance, there were 44,640 refugee claims.

Under Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, anyone who comes into the country and claims refugee protection can’t be charged with any offences under immigration law or certain Criminal Code sections “pending disposition of their claim for refugee protection or if refugee protection is conferred.”

That’s consistent with international treaties to which Canada is a signatory, including the UN convention on refugees, which are founded on the principle that asylum seekers are often compelled, for their own safety, to flee into foreign countries without authorization or proper documentation.

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While the government describes the border crossers as “irregular,” Conservative critics and others make a point of using the word “illegal,” fostering a measure of confusion about how best to properly characterize their status.

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2017 saw the largest spike in refugees worldwide since 1961, so it’s hardly surprising that “a very small proportion” of those people should turn up in Canada, said Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the representative in Canada for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

But even with the influx of irregular border crossers, Beuze said, Canada’s refugee intake is not dramatically higher than what the country has dealt with in the past – and is downright tiny compared to the sort of numbers other countries are experiencing.

The UNHCR estimates there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, 25.4 million of whom are refugees forced to flee conflict or persecution in their home countries.

Fully 85 per cent of the world’s displaced people are being hosted in developing countries that are much smaller geographically, much more densely populated and considerably poorer than Canada. Among the top refugee hosting countries, the UNHCR reports that Turkey is coping with 3.5 million refugees, Pakistan and Uganda with 1.4 million each, Lebanon with 1 million and Iran with 979,400.

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In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh – “one of the (highest) human density places on earth,” Beuze said – some 800,000 desperate Rohingya refugees arrived in a six-week period. In tiny Lebanon, many of its 4 million citizens were already living without running water or electricity before more than one million Syrian refugees arrived.

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“That’s a crisis,” Beuze said. Having 50,000 refugees a year turn up in a large, developed, wealthy country like Canada is “absolutely no crisis.”

“It’s a small number in a country which certainly can afford to continue upholding the highest standards of offering protection to those fleeing conflict or persecution.”

For the most part, Beuze said he believes Canada has been handling the influx efficiently and humanely, beefing up resources at the border and at the IRB. While housing the refugee claimants has been challenging, he says the temporary shelter set up in Montreal is currently half empty.

As for Toronto, which was struggling with a housing shortage before any border crossers arrived, Beuze said: “I doubt that 3,000 people arriving in a city of 10 million will provoke an affordable housing crisis.”

Jennifer Hyndman, director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, said Canada’s refugee numbers are trifling compared even to some other wealthy industrialized countries in Europe. Germany, for instance, opened its doors to almost 800,000 Syrian refugees in 2015.

“Yes, our numbers are higher (than usual) in the context of Canada, but we are essentially an island. We are surrounded on three sides by cold oceans,” which largely protects Canada from the massive influxes of refugees experienced elsewhere in the world, she says.

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Like Beuze, Hyndman said: “I don’t think there is a crisis … We really have the capacity to manage the situation.”

Similarly, Harald Bauder, program director of Immigration and Settlement Studies at Ryerson University, says “the numbers don’t suggest that this is a crisis.”

“When you consider all immigration and refugee intake in Canada, it seems to be actually quite a relatively small number.”


Beuze, Hyndman and Bauder all agree there is no foundation for calling the influx of irregular border crossers a crisis. But all three worry that the word is being used by some – along with terms like “illegal,” “bogus” and “queue jumpers” – to dehumanize asylum seekers and instill fear that they’re lawbreakers not worthy of compassion.

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“To label it a crisis does political work, it opens up space for us to denigrate certain groups of people,” said Hyndman. “But it also allows governments to marshal resources towards security, national security, away from humanitarian and/or human rights obligations, even in law.”

Given the facts and the views of the experts, while there’s little doubt the situation poses a political and policy challenge for both Ottawa and the affected provinces, Scheer’s contention of a “crisis” rates a ranking of “full of baloney.”


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:

No baloney – the statement is completely accurate.

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A little baloney – the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required.

Some baloney – the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing.

A lot of baloney – the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth.

Full of baloney – the statement is completely inaccurate.

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