With spring finally here, more and more alarmists are raising their voices around asylum seekers coming through “irregular” crossing at the border. Some have called this a crisis.
But is this a crisis? Although an important issue it is certainly not a crisis.
Last year, 20,593 asylum seekers crossed between official border checkpoints. More than 90% of these crossings happened at the U.S. border with Quebec. Add to that another 21,180 asylum seekers coming through regular means.
There seems to be a stabilization of the numbers over the last few months. With each month averaging under 2,000 people.
This isn’t the influx that Europe grappled with the last number of years. This is not Germany taking in over a million asylum seekers.
With a population of 36 million people, Canada is positioned well to deal with these numbers. And although they are crossing informally, it’s not that there is just an open border for them. The RCMP has done a good job processing the migrants and ensuring safety and security.
The only thing that is a looming crisis is the rhetoric that is picking up. More and more voices are using populist tones in their criticisms. The opposition dedicated a day last week in the House of Commons to score political points on the backs of asylum seekers. And a Quebec political leader even called for a wall to be built along the Chemin Roxham. I wonder where he got that idea.
This is dangerous. What can be looked at as legitimate questions can easily turn nasty into a wave of dangerous populism.
Let’s be honest. The common thread of today’s populism is anti-immigration. This populism legitimizes xenophobia and encourage the separation of people into “us” and “them.” It creates a politics that sees the other not simply as different, but as different and therefore dangerous. Adversaries become enemies.
Populism prevents an energetic engagement with diversity. It erects barriers — whether literally or figuratively — that stand at odds with the reality of an increasingly interconnected — and interdependent — world.
Populism can undermine the basic underpinnings of a democracy. If we have learned anything from south of the border it is how norms that were once considered absolute can quickly become obsolete. How things that were once unimaginable can soon become unexceptional.
So how do we respond? First, words matter. We need to watch how we talk about legitimate issues around asylum seekers and our borders. We can’t whip up fear and division.
Second, we can’t use this as political football. No party should use immigration as a wedge issue. We deserve better than that.
Finally, we need to recognize the fact that when it comes to immigration, we’ve done a lot right. We’ve devised smart policies with high levels of skilled immigrants and we help people that are fleeing some of the most wretched situations around the globe. We do a very good job of integrating them. And while we’re far from perfect, we bring a lot to the table.
However, an area that needs attention is the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). Although the recent budget increased funding for the IRB more is needed. Money is needed to process asylum claims efficiently as well as deal with a growing backlog. Continuing to build this “good governance” structure will go a long way to maintaining public trust in the system.
Canada still has work to do, but we have a strong foundation on which to build.
Senator Ratna Omidvar is an internationally recognized voice on migration, diversity and inclusion. She represents Ontario in the Senate.
This article appeared in the May 1, 2018 edition of The Toronto Star.