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Compassion must guide our next steps for Haitian asylum seekers: Senator Omidvar
Compassion must guide our next steps for Haitian asylum seekers: Senator Omidvar
August 16, 2017
image Ratna Omidvar
Ratna Omidvar
ISG - (Ontario)

About 150 asylum seekers have arrived in Quebec each day for several weeks. Most are Haitians with temporary visas to the United States granted in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, a protection President Donald Trump has threatened to end.

Montreal's shelters have filled up, so repurposing Olympic Stadium as a reception centre for refugees made good sense. This early step by the city and the province is a model of level-headed and compassionate decision-making as we navigate what comes next.

First, let's be clear that this is not a crisis. Some 6,500 people have crossed the Quebec border so far this year. The province and other parts of Canada have seen spikes like this before, including 12,000 people who crossed into Quebec in the same time frame in 2008. Even these numbers are small within the context of overall immigration. Canada had already planned to welcome 40,000 refugees in 2017, and that is just 13 per cent of the annual total of 300,000 immigrants.

But the surge in arrivals may continue – and with it, important policy and governance questions.

Are old refugee definitions compatible with modern refugee circumstances? Many argue our governance structures do not recognize the complex reasons that prompt someone to take any route to safety and opportunity. Haitians in the U.S., for instance, received assistance after an earthquake. Now they're escaping the threat of deportation and, for some, the threat of insecurity at home.

Is there a better way to manage environmental and climate refugees? As in Haiti, the environment and politics are inseparable. We know environmental disasters compound and spark political instability and violence. For example, NGOs reported increased violence including rape against women since the earthquake, notably in displaced persons camps. It's an open question if our refugee system will (and should) protect Haitians or other groups who need it. Canada does not face these questions alone: Consider that scientists predict much of South Asia could be too hot for humans by the end of the century.

Do deficiencies in the U.S. immigration system merit new approaches by Canada? This is not the first group of immigrants who fear treatment by Mr. Trump that many Canadians would consider cruel and unreasonable. There were Muslim immigrants, then the undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers and now Haitians who lived, worked and raised families in the U.S. for as many as seven years. A balanced approach may be to continue taking cues from global standards, such as the developing multilateral compacts on refugees and migrants, and avoid any knee-jerk decisions guided by U.S. politics.

How can we manage arrivals in ways that build public confidence and public support? Beginning at the border, we face a test of the Safe Third Country Agreement that lets Canada and the U.S. deflect asylum claimants back to the first safe country they arrived in. A loophole in the agreement means it only applies at proper ports of entry, which is why Haitians and others are crossing by back roads and fields. This is unsafe for refugees, and it undermines public opinion on the integrity of the immigration system, as well as our compassion.

Next comes the challenge of refugee processing. Every eligible asylum claimant gets a hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board, and reasonable timelines from arrival to an asylum decision are critical for individual well-being and public confidence. Quebec has asked for a better-resourced process. The federal government should prioritize this request and ensure the IRB is accessible, fair and efficient.

And then there is the everyday, immensely local work of settlement and integration. Montreal and other receiving communities will need support as they respond through public services and spaces such as schools, hospitals, libraries, transit and stadiums. Montreal is already giving expression to its new title as a Sanctuary City, adopted by unanimous vote in February. Residents are volunteering, donating and connecting with newcomers. In the months ahead, other communities can look to Montreal as a model, and so can higher levels of government, which should seek ways to amplify the natural compassion of the city's residents.

Meeting the needs of new arrivals will at times be difficult and improvised, and the federal government would be wise to let local authorities take the lead. The immediate path to "peace, order and good government," as our Constitution Act of 1868 states, may well run through our cities.

Ratna Omidvar is a senator representing Ontario. She is a member of the Senate Committee on Human Rights and the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

This article appeared in the August 4, 2017 edition of the Globe and Mail.