Haitian refugees seeking asylum are seen near the border in Lacolle, Quebec, Aug. 10, 2017. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Luke Stocking: Time to overcome fear

  • September 18, 2018

How little it takes. How few people cross our borders before we allow narratives of fear to start taking hold of us. 

More than once this summer the headlines caught my attention: “Half of Canadians want immigration levels decreased,” said one. “Refugees a crisis for Canadians,” said another. 

An Angus Reid poll from early August found that 67 per cent of Canadians felt irregular border crossings were a “crisis” and that our ability to handle the situation was “at its limit.” An Ipsos-Reid poll later in August found that 56 per cent of Canadians feel that having the army involved in building shelters for asylum seekers indicates that the issue is “out of control.” 

What do the actual numbers show on asylum seekers? Has there been an increase in asylum seekers in Canada since President Donald Trump’s actions started frightening people northwards? Was an uncontrollable wave of migration launched with our Prime Minister’s famous tweet, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada”? 

In 2017 the total number of asylum seekers processed by the Canadian Border Services Agency was 42,888. Of that number, just under half crossed into the country irregularly (i.e. at some place other than an official port of entry). This represented a large increase from 2016, which saw 23,894 claims made. As of July the number for 2018 stood at 29,353. So yes, there has been an increase in the last few years. 

But lets add some other statistics to the discussion to paint a clearer picture. Canada has taken in at least 25,000 asylum seekers eight times in the last 17 years, with a high of 44,640 in 2001. In 2016, Canada accepted just 1.7 per cent of the global total of new refugees, and that was with our special efforts for Syria. Consider countries that harbour refugees much closer to their originating countries: almost one in four people living in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. In September 2017, 270,000 Rohingya refugees crossed the border into Bangladesh in just two weeks. 

But this is all an exercise in numbers. The reality is most people who respond to these polls have never actually met an asylum seeker. Many people’s attitudes and feelings are the result of news headlines only. They are reactions to pictures of dark-skinned people standing with suitcases at their feet and forest at their backs on the U.S.-Quebec border. They are not the fruit of an encounter with the humanity of people who leave everything behind. 

This stands in stark contrast to the Pope, who encourages us to create a “culture of encounter” with those who are forced to flee their homes. In his morning meditation on the matter in 2016 he said we are asked to do this not just by seeing, but looking; not just hearing, but listening; not just passing people by, but stopping with them; not just saying “what a shame, poor people!”, but allowing ourselves to be moved with compassion; “and then to draw near, to touch and to say: ‘Do not weep,’ and to give at least a drop of life.”

As Catholics we are asked to share the journey, not the fear. There are countless opportunities for us to encounter those who have sought a safer home in Canada. Many people in Catholic parishes already have done so by sponsoring refugee families. Through the Office of Refugees in the Archdiocese of Toronto, 1,236 resettlements were initiated in 2016.  There are even more opportunities to reach out to the much vaster majority — those who have fled their homes and will never make it as far as Canada. 

On Sept. 12, Development and Peace – Caritas Canada joined the global Share the Journey campaign which Pope Francis launched in 2017 through Caritas Internationalis. More than 160 of the Caritas organizations around the world, including Development and Peace, have gotten involved. 

For the Canadian arm of the campaign, Development and Peace is inviting Canadians to organize walks in solidarity with those forcibly displaced from their homes. It is hoped that Canadians will collectively walk a distance greater than the equatorial circumference of the planet, 40,075 kilometres. October will see a number of parish-based workshops to educate people on the issue and empower them to get involved. 

Together, Catholics can build a culture of encounter and make headlines of a different kind. 

(Stocking is Central Ontario animator with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.)