The Jesuit Refugee Service believes Canada should open its doors wide to all refugees, much like it has for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, where above people gather in Winnipeg last year for the arrival of the first federally chartered flight bringing Ukrainian refugees to Canada. But with the recent agreement between Canada and the United States that shuts down illegal border crossings, there are fears for those seeking a new home in Canada, like the family of four found dead at the border near Emerson, Man., last year where below, RCMP search the area. CNS photo, Shannon VanRaes, Reuters

Jesuit Refugee Service pleads for open door refugee policy

  • April 29, 2023

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) has strongly denounced a recent agreement that would shut down illegal border crossings such as Roxham Road between Quebec and New York State that has facilitated the arrival of thousands of refugees into Canada.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden announced the agreement during Biden’s recent visit to Canada, though the agreement had been signed a year ago. It gives Canada the right to turn away asylum seekers crossing into the country through these routes, and to send these migrants, mainly from Central and South America, back to the United States.

With the imminent closure of Roxham Road — which saw nearly 40,000 asylum seekers enter Canada in 2022 — as an option for refugees, Canada has agreed to accept 15,000 migrants from the Western hemisphere who apply to enter the country through legal channels.

Norbert Piché, director of JRS Canada, said the whole issue needs to be viewed through a Christian lens. Policies that shut the door to refugees fleeing war, persecution and life-threatening circumstances are against Christian values.

“I believe we must stop looking at this from a legalistic or a resource-based point of view,” he said. “Humanity as a whole must reframe this issue of migration by looking at it with a different lens. As a Christian, I ask myself how does my faith guide me to look at this with that new lens. Am I like the Good Samaritan, or do I react like the priest and the Levite when there is somebody in need before me?”

The agreement also falls short in dealing with the reasons people are trying to enter Canada and the United States in the first place.

“We must address the reasons why migrants are arriving at the Canada-U.S. border rather than punish those who are seeking to exercise their legal right to claim refugee status,” said Piché in a joint statement with JRS USA. “While we welcome the Canadian government’s reported plan to create a new refugee program for 15,000 migrants … it must not be made at the expense of all those who are seeking Canada’s protection by entering the country irregularly. Canada must be consistent in its efforts to welcome all who seek safety.”

Piché also argues that the U.S. should not be considered a safe third country, and sending migrants back there only places them in a greater predicament.

Those arguing a lack of resources to absorb thousands of newcomers has been proven faulty by the welcome given to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.

“When the war broke out in Ukraine, Canada created a special program to welcome Ukrainians,” he said. “Over 200,000 have arrived so far. Many of them were welcomed by Canadians who opened their doors to them. Why is it then when somebody flees gang violence like in Honduras, poverty in Haiti — and many other situations and places could be named — that Canada and Canadians are nowhere near as welcoming? When I truly consider what my faith says, I come to realize that I must welcome the other who is fleeing for whatever reason.” 

Some refugee experts, while agreeing that governments need to look at the issue through a humanitarian lens and accept all refugees who knock at their doors, point to the practical consequences of an open-door policy with inadequate resources to support their relocation.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told CTV that the special program for Ukrainians has the advantage of being open to an unlimited number of people but doesn’t come with the support government-sponsored refugees typically receive.

“From a policy perspective, it has the advantages of being really quick and being open,” she said. “Ukrainian people may be ‘okay, well, we’ll come to Canada and we’ll be able to have all of our needs met,’ but they weren’t necessarily informed or realizing that all they were getting is a work permit and a visitor visa. They’re not getting a whole system of support.”

Nuri Kino, leader of the Sweden-based humanitarian aid agency A Demand for Action, is currently working with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Kino agrees that prolonged wars and massive natural disasters such as the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria place refugee-accepting governments in a dilemma.

“From a humanitarian perspective, governments have a moral imperative to accept all refugees fleeing war and natural disasters,” he said. “But most governments are inadequately prepared to handle large numbers once they arrive, and they can’t be expected to live in refugee shelters forever.”

He cited the case of Poland, which has received more than 11 million refugees since February 2022.

Initially one of the most welcoming countries in the world for Ukrainian refugees, Poland eventually found its resources stretched to the limit and as of March 1 has phased out funding for refugee shelters, placing them in danger of closing. This leaves elderly, sick and disabled residents stranded in an impossible situation, he pointed out.

“One of these shelters in Warsaw appealed to us for help, and now we are distributing food to its residents,” said Kino. “It’s a tough situation for governments as well. On the one hand the humanitarian principle of  helping those in need, on the other, the need to control their borders.”

Kino, though, can’t help but view the issue via a personal lens.

“I was once a refugee child,” he said. “What if Sweden hadn’t let my family in when we fled Christian persecution in Turkey in the 1970s?”

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