A woman and her family from Sudan are taken into custody after arriving by taxi and walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Quebec. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Asylum funds allocated poorly, advocates say

By 
  • March 29, 2019

OTTAWA - Refugee advocates are welcoming a federal budget pledge to spend $1.8 billion over five years to accelerate the processing of asylum claims, but concerns are being raised about how funds will be allocated.

The money is intended to help process 50,000 asylum claims per year but a large proportion of it will be used to address concerns at the American border rather than speed up overseas refugee claims.

“I’m pleased to see that additional resources are being allocated to strengthen Canada’s borders and the asylum system,” said Deacon Rudy Ovjak, director of the office for refugees of the Toronto archdiocese. “I think that’s a good step. “However, much of the additional resources are being allocated to address one specific problem — the significant increase in asylum claimants who have come in from the United States and either have come to a port of entry or illegal border crossing. We could have used that money to bring over people waiting in refugee camps.”

With 25 to 28 million refugees worldwide, “tackle that problem first,” Ovjak said.

A sharp spike in the number of asylum seekers crossing into Canada “irregularly” from the United States has “challenged the fairness and effectiveness of Canada’s asylum system,” said the 2019 budget document. Additional resources will be allocated to “detect and intercept” those trying to “exploit” the system and have them “removed on a priority basis.”

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), welcomed the increased spending to address the backlog.

“It is a matter of life and death for refugees to get a hearing within a reasonable time,” she said. But she is concerned the situation is being framed as “a highly political issue.”

“The government is presumably trying to position itself in response to opposition criticism not ensuring the integrity of the border,” she said. “We dispute that way of looking at it. The fundamental problem at the border is sending people back to the United States under the Safe Third Country Agreement.”

Under the agreement, asylum seekers are required to make their claim in the first safe country they reach. Consequently, claimants entering Canada from the United States at an official port of entry can be sent back immediately. However, if they cross at what is called an irregular port of entry they are entitled to make an asylum claim and have their case adjudicated, which is often a lengthy process. There have been tens of thousands of these irregular border crossings in the past two years, mainly in Quebec.

The CCR, the Canadian Council of Churches and other groups have denounced the agreement and are challenging it in court, but “it’s moving forward painfully slowly.”

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) also objects to the government’s new strategy because it “would further limit the welcoming nature they claim Canada is proud of.”

“The use of language that suggests potential claimants are not genuine in their reasons for seeking asylum or that they pose a threat of exploitation to our system is concerning,” said CPJ.

But Ovcjak said Canada should consider the unintended consequences of rescinding the Safe Third Country Agreement, and argued Canada has essentially set it aside by allowing asylum claimants to exploit the loophole.

“The reality is there is a significant financial cost to that, which has to be taken into account,” said Ovcjak. “The knee-jerk setting aside of the (agreement) without investment in infrastructure is why we have the problem we have with emergency shelters in Montreal and Toronto.”

Ovcjak believes more attention should be given to overseas refugees.

“Sadly, not mentioned in the budget are any resources to address the backlog of refugees abroad,” he said. “These are people living in very tenuous circumstances who have waited many, many years.”

Ovcjak said the majority of asylum claimants crossing the border irregularly are economic migrants.

“I understand why they’re fleeing from poverty but they do not qualify as a refugee,” he said. “This is why they (government officials) are allocating so much resources to the removal of failed asylum claimants.”


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