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Looming election turns up the heat on refugees

Looming election turns up the heat on refugees
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The House of Commons standing committee on finance got a passionate earful last week from one of Canada’s most knowledgeable refugee experts, who wanted to know precisely why the Trudeau government was suddenly taking a harder line on asylum seekers at the very moment the numbers entering Canada were falling.

On paper, the “anti-refugee” provisions buried in the 392-page omnibus budget bill, C-97, won’t impact many of the people still walking to Canada in search of asylum. Even by the government’s estimates, fewer than 1,000 refugee claimants this year are likely to be diverted into a new process — a significantly less robust one, critics say — that will decide their fate without a full and formal hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).

But the tweaks nevertheless enabled the prime minister and his cabinet to abruptly signal a very different kind of virtue — an unmistakably rightward shift on the fear-fraught question of refugees, targeting what Border Security Minister Bill Blair described as “asylum-shoppers.”

University of Toronto professor Audrey Macklin isn’t buying it. In testimony before committee on Tuesday — and in a followup interview with the Star — she blasted the changes as nothing more than disingenuous pre-election pandering to potential Liberal voters gripped with unwarranted border worries.

The proposed tweaks to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act would, among other things, change the eligibility requirements for certain claimants who previously made a claim in another country (i.e., the U.S.), regardless of whether their case had been heard elsewhere. Such claimants would then be diverted to a new process that critics say weakens the basic rights of asylum seekers.

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“This is what centrist governments in Europe have tried, and it’s a losing game,” said Macklin. “When they find themselves confronted by xenophobic appeals to anger and the creation of moral panic over refugees, they have a choice. They can respond either by taking the high road — insist on evidence, use facts, show some leadership — or they can run scared, feeling they have to pander to the fear or they will lose votes.”

“And what we’ve seen in Europe,” she continued, “is that centrist governments have run scared. And all that happens are they get pushed further and further and it’s never enough. The appetite for more xenophobic, more restrictive, more punitive policies is insatiable. And it does them no good electorally. Ultimately it just degrades them.”

Macklin, the director of U of T’s Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, has spent decades researching refugee issues, including judging claims cases firsthand as an IRB adjudicator. She readily acknowledges the cross-border surge triggered a messy processing backlog. But that was 2018. One year later, the numbers now have dwindled to half what they were — the RCMP confirmed this week it apprehended 3,944 irregular migrants in the first three months of 2019, compared to more than 7,600 between January and April in 2018.

Yet paradoxically, as the numbers fall the border anxieties of everyday Canadians appear to have risen, pollsters say, setting up the refugee file as the easiest of political piñatas as the rival parties ramp into election mode.

Macklin contends that even as fear-baiting internet memes fly fast and furious, stoking Canadian emotion on the refugee file, the moment calls for serious, fact-based leadership. She notes that the IRB, after being caught flat-footed last year, now has the resources to tackle the backlog and is doing so — “setting ambitious targets and actually exceeding them, even as the numbers coming to the border are dropping.

“The Canadian government was unwise to allow itself to be panicked by this. They needed to say, ‘Look folks, the numbers are dropping. There was a problem with processing and now we are meeting that challenge. Everyone calm down.’ That’s leadership. What isn’t leadership is pretending — taking as a given — that there’s some sort of out-of-control border problem and disingenuously pandering to it. The number, even at its peak, was trivial to begin with — just a tiny fraction of what other countries have dealt with. It was enough to allow people to say, ‘Oh my God, it doubled!’ and portray it as a crisis. That’s when you hope people dig into the facts for themselves.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, now two deep into a series of major policy speeches, has yet to articulate any election views on the immigration file, leaving punters to ponder over older interviews, such as during his race for the party leadership.

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At the time, Scheer portrayed himself as a “compassionate conservative” — intent upon reframing the party in a far more positive light after an election loss to Trudeau that he felt turned on “issues that we had around tone and perception and image.”

“Because the Liberals are so good at the flip side of that, right? Nobody doubts that they care … I’m saying, let’s flip it around, let’s show Canadians what motivates us: genuine concern, real compassion, with policies that get actual results. It’s the misplaced compassion we always seem to lose out on.”

But as Raj pressed for specifics, Scheer’s messages got a bit mixed. At one point, he suggested that Syrian refugees in Canada “want to go back, they want to go home.” And although he slammed Justin Trudeau for “a heck of a lot of new spending that’s not even taking place in Canada” — spending that would make for “low-hanging fruit” once his team is elected and launches its drive toward a balanced budget — later in the interview Scheer suggested that unlike the Liberals, he would concern himself more about refugees overseas, rather than those entering Canada.

“The left is very good at showing compassion for those people who’ve just trudged through the snow, risking life and limb to come to Canada — but there’s no compassion for the tens of thousands of people waiting in a refugee camp, playing by the rules, facing real prosecution that if they left the camp they very well might be killed. Nobody’s coming in over the border because they are persecuted in North Dakota or Maine,” said Scheer.

“So we have to show that side of ourselves, that we have compassion when it comes to refugees but compassion for people who are actually in danger and actually need to be taken care of and are waiting their turn and doing everything properly,” he said.

It remains unclear how and to what extent Scheer’s views have evolved. But as of this moment, as far as refugees within Syria and the camps that surround it, Canada is indeed a significant contributor, injecting $53 million into the UN World Food Program this year and last. UN officials told the Star that Canada’s 2018 contributions “ensured WFP was able to reach 2.9 million and 650,000 beneficiaries for general food assistance and school feeding activities, respectively.” In 2019, the food aid for Syrians displaced by war is projected to expand to reach 3.5 million people.

The WFP’s Marwa Awad, who is based in Damascus, said those needs are now about to increase as the fighting subsides and the UN readies for a shift out of crisis mode and into helping repatriate the displaced.

“There would have been massive hunger and starvation if not for our interventions. That’s just the fact,” said Awad. “Even if you don’t think flowery thoughts about humanitarian word, the hard logic of supporting this transition is to ensure that there is hope for all Syrians, including the 5.6 million refugees and displaced. It’s not how we think about it, of course. But the logic is when there is hope here, people won’t want to come to your border.”

For U of T’s Macklin, the hope is that Scheer follows up with an immigration and refugee platform that lives up to the compassion he proclaimed as a candidate for party leader. But she is troubled by what she sees as a disconnect in the pitting of asylum-seekers here versus refugees there.

“The idea of providing assistance to people who have not been able to leave Syria should not be in competition with admitting refugees for resettlement or recognizing them through the asylum process,” said Macklin.

“It’s not a zero-sum game and to suggest it is, the game really is, ‘We don’t want them here so we’ll make a show of helping them there.’ Couching it in the language of humanitarianism should not disguise what that’s really about.”

How, then, can Canadians be expected to cut through the coming onslaught of fear-based refugee messaging once all the policies pieces are on the table? Macklin has a suggestion — and it doesn’t involve going out and digging up the facts by hand.

“I could point everyone to the elaborate facts on educating yourself on immigration because most people just aren’t going to do that,” she said.

“Instead, what I’d say is this: know that you are being told a story about newcomers, and know that this is an old story that’s been going on since before Canada was a country.

“There are three narratives that just keep coming up, for as long as I’ve been researching immigration. They are, ‘Immigrants are stealing our jobs’; ‘If they’re not stealing our jobs they are sucking the welfare state dry;’ and, if neither of these things can be proven, ‘The newcomers are unassimilable — they will not integrate.’

“And so they’re a threat — maybe because they are terrorists, or they are criminals, or they’re culture is different, they’re religion is different. These stories are always there, going back 150 years, sometimes under the surface, sometimes on the surface and sometimes they are very prominent.

“There’s nothing new about this, the only thing that changes is the cast. It used to be the Irish. Then it was the Italians. Then it was the east Europeans. South Asians, Chinese, Jews. As so on — and now Muslims — up to the present.

“So in this election, just be aware that these stories are being recycled and manipulated and that it is no truer today than it was 150 years ago, 100 years ago and 50 years ago, when it was told about your parents.
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