by Martin Regg Cohn
Returning to Pearson Airport from vacation, I’m always jolted by the sight of our border guards clad, incongruously, in armoured vests.
Any threat to Canada’s border security from knife-wielding assailants is surely infinitesimal: passengers are pre-screened for weapons before boarding flights.
But here’s a bigger challenge for our system: soft-spoken foreigners who approach border agents not to inflict violence but to seek protection — supposedly from persecution at home.
The risk isn’t so much from aggression as exploitation — not from passengers with concealed guns, but human smugglers who understand the facts on the ground better than most Canadians do.
The armoured vests are a laughable symbol of misplaced vigilance, yet we’re in no position to let our guard down: the integrity of our world-renowned refugee system remains vulnerable for entirely different reasons.
Try this end-of-summer skill-testing question:
What’s the biggest source of refugee claims in Canada today? If you answered Syria, Sudan or any current conflict zone, you’re not even close.
It’s Hungary, of course — a stable member of the European Union (whose citizens can easily seek refuge in any neighbouring country). They choose an overseas flight to Canada because they gain instant access to our generous social services upon arrival.
They are largely Roma, an ethnic minority that, admittedly, faces discrimination — but not “persecution,” the key benchmark under refugee law (which is why almost all are either rejected or withdraw their claims).
Remember the two boatloads of Sri Lankans that landed in British Columbia? At last count, only four of the 76 migrants on the Ocean Lady have been accepted. Just 15 of the 497 Tamils who came on the MV Sun Sea have been deemed refugees.
These trends point to systematic gaming of the system by sophisticated people smugglers. Canada is justly proud of its record, but we dare not lapse into righteousness and rigidity. By virtue of our splendid geographic isolation, refugee advocates here have the luxury of high-minded moralizing.
Not so in Australia, a country that is in many ways comparable to Canada except that it lies in a high-traffic migrant zone. This month, it announced an astonishing U-turn in its approach to boat people.
Five years ago, an avowedly progressive Labour government shut down controversial offshore detention camps in the remote Pacific island state of Nauru, set up a decade ago to deter boat people. Human smugglers promptly reactivated their dormant routes.
Nearly 1,000 Australia-bound migrants have perished at sea since 2001, some two-thirds of them over the past two years. More than 100 boats with some 7,500 asylum-seekers arrived this year alone.
A spate of drownings forced the government’s hand. Allied with the right-wing Liberal opposition, Labour is now sending any new arrivals offshore for processing.
Australia’s soul-searching has received virtually no coverage in Canada over the summer.
Yet whenever federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney tries to crack down on the glaring loopholes and sinkholes in our system, he is pilloried by refugee advocates who demand perfection over practicality.
Canadians shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking they are somehow above the partisan wrangling and outright racism that manifests itself when people lose confidence in the system. When the first boatload of Tamils arrived two years ago, a xenophobic politician named Rob Ford jumped in to say Toronto didn’t need any more people.
Premier Dalton McGuinty quickly waded in to say Ontarians were better than that, but he was quite wrong. They weren’t. Public opinion polls showed most Ontarians wanted the boat people expelled even if they were found to be legitimate refugees. That’s how people react when they feel they’re being snowed.
Australia’s unhappy U-turn is a reminder that politicians must maintain public confidence in the credibility of a well-functioning system, so that genuine refugees will always find sanctuary — and support — in Canada. courtesy: Toronto Star