Canada’s Growing Refugee Crisis

By James Metcalfe | August 7, 2017

James Metcalfe - Director of ImmigrationJim Metcalfe – Pace Immigration: Earlier this year, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale visited Emerson, Manitoba, to look at the border situation there. Migrants – as well as some bona fide refugees – were coming over the US/Manitoba border to claim asylum.

While in the US, these asylum-seekers had either a) not sought refugee status there, or b) had been denied such status, resulting in the prospect of being deported. Immigration backlogs and oversight being what they are, many of these people stayed put in the US, with no one coming to make sure they were leaving.

Then in late January, two things happened: One, Trump fired his first “travel ban” salvo, making the United States look even less hospitable to undocumented immigrants than before. Two, Prime Minister Trudeau followed Trump’s travel ban announcement by tweeting: To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.

The message was clear. Next stop: Canada. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister forgot to mention the rules.

Safe Third Country Agreement

People have asked me lately, “Why can people just walk over the border and say they’re a refugee?” The answer lies in the Safe Third Country Agreement and the loophole that’s embedded in it.

The Safe Third Country Agreement is an agreement between the US and Canada that says an asylum-seeker must claim refugee status in the country they arrive in first: the US or Canada. They cannot enter the US, dislike their chances there, and continue on to claim status in Canada. Neither can they do the same going from Canada to the US. But there’s a catch: the rule only applies at “regular,” or official, border crossings. If you cross in, say, a farmer’s field, then all bets are off. You are now in Canada and can claim refugee status. Canada must now process you accordingly, which can take months and sometimes years.


Back in late February, after the number of asylum seekers crossing into Manitoba and Quebec began to climb, Immigration Minister Hussen said this: “We need to see what happens over the next little while to see if this is a trend…We can’t really determine that this is a trend moving forward.”

This must have been the agreed upon soundbite in the cabinet meeting, because when Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale visited Manitoba a couple of weeks later, he said, “At this moment it’s simply not physically possible to predict what [the refugee] flow will be some weeks down the road.” He then promised $30,000 to help ensure the Emerson, Manitoba volunteer fire department’s budget wasn’t affected by the resources now being allocated to border control.


With all due respect to the ministers, I found their responses to be akin to an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. Frankly, if the number of people coming across the border illegally in the dead of winter was rising, then it was a lead pipe cinch that the number would continue to climb in the summer.

refugees montreal

People seeking asylum arrive in Montreal. Photo: Graham Hughes, Toronto Star

And it has. Fast forward 6 months and we have reports of mass border crossings in Quebec. The latest are mainly Haitians, whose temporary residence in the United States is set to run out in January, 2018. These asylum seekers are arriving by the busload and the government of Montreal is now housing them in Olympic Stadium (the late Jean Drapeau, the visionary behind the Olympic Games in Montreal, must be smiling somewhere because a use has finally been found for the dome).

Kidding aside, a master of optics and image like Trudeau must see the inherent danger in allowing Olympic Stadium to resemble the Superdome post-Hurricane Katrina. Busloads of people sleeping in a defunct sports stadium is not an answer to this problem. This issue could get very bad – and very expensive – quickly.

A Weak Response

And yet the government’s response is still weak tea. While at least no one is offering $30K to volunteer fire departments, Hussen’s latest word on the issue is a hedge at best: “We discourage people from conducting irregular crossings of our borders…It’s not safe, it’s not something that we want people to do. We want people to claim asylum in the first country that they’re in, which in this case is the U.S.”

This “tsk-tsk” of what Canada “wants” was followed by the stunning announcement that the government of Canada will ask refugee claimants which province they wish to live in, then transport them there until they can have their case heard. If that’s not an invitation to roll the dice on entering Canada illegally, I don’t know what is.


Meanwhile, the backlog of refugee cases continues to grow. There are currently around 5,000 so-called “legacy refugees” in Canada who have been waiting since 2011 and 2012 to have their cases heard – but they keep getting pushed to the back of the line as new cases come in. As this Maclean’s article points out, the long waits and backlogs are actually an inviting aspect of claiming refugee status in Canada: the longer the wait, the better the chances that something might change – you could marry a Canadian, the law might change, there could be an amnesty announcement – and you will be granted permanent status.

Last week, Montreal alone received roughly 150 people per day seeking asylum. The backlog isn’t going down anytime soon. If it’s true that there are 11 million undocumented people in the United States, then this represents about a third of Canada’s entire population. Is Canada prepared for even a quarter of that number to head north?

If the government of Canada keeps its head in the sand on this issue, I can promise them, the trend will continue whether they want it or not.

After 24 years of service in the Departments of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and Foreign Affairs and International Trade, in the positions of both Visa Officer and Canadian Consul, James Metcalfe established his own immigration consulting firm in Toronto in 1993. James has assisted thousands of persons to immigrate and live, work and study in Canada. Now an advisor to Pace Law Firm, James brings a lifetime of experience to the immigration team.