The domestic security threat of population influxes to Canada

Over the last two years, a trend of asylum seekers illegally entering Canada has challenged federal and provincial governments to appropriately respond to and receive increasing numbers of migrant populations.  Recent debate in the House of Commons has centred on an urgent need for a plan and a gap in preparedness but the gaps and needs remain.  There is no point in arguing the legitimacy of the asylum seekers: they’re arriving whether parliamentarians or the public like it or not.  Canada’s domestic security is impacted by a lack of adequate preparedness and program capacity which creates significant security and social hazards.

Canada is unprepared for population influxes

That the Government of Canada considers this issue emergent is troubling.  A noticeable increase of illegal entries seeking asylum occurred in October and November 2015—prior to the election of President Donald Trump—and occurred at numerous entry points in Ontario, Québec and Manitoba (including the original hotspot, Emerson, Manitoba).1 There are vulnerable points across the country’s border through which illegal and sometimes undetected access to Canada can be achieved.  The trend continued and flared up again in August 2017 in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Québec, where a majority of the over 5,500 asylum seekers that month alone2 illegally entered from the United States and were intercepted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), tying up extensive federal law enforcement resources in the response operation.  The basic problem is that the Safe Third Country Agreement prevents refugee or asylum claims from persons who have already found safe harbour in the US but prohibits removal of claimants from their final arrival country until a hearing has been held.3  Asylum seekers know this and are entering illegally to force a risk and eligibility assessment that they would not receive if they had attempted to enter legally.  Essentially, the agreement facilitates illegal entry into Canada as the seekers are confident that once they’ve arrived in Canada, they are very likely to be allowed to stay.  The problem is political and perpetual.  It is a “loop-hole” that is being exploited and nothing has been done to close it.  With porous borders and no legal willingness or ability to deport those who enter illegally, we are demonstrating a significant sovereignty weakness to other asylum seekers, organized criminals, and terrorists.

A recent parallel can be found in the massive state-facilitated influx of Syrian refugees in 2016.  No one would contest the inherent good of protecting refugees from brutal state and non-state actors’ violence; however, the discourse before and after the refugee reception operation seems to ignore or at least minimize the inherent vulnerabilities rendered by such an action.  German intelligence officials have observed extremist actors abusing their refugee assistance networks in order to successfully gain entry into Europe,4 though Canadian officials appeared to have mostly ignored this reality.  In a geographically expansive and under-resourced space such as Canada, individuals or networks of extremists penetrating our borders could mean losing our only ability to identify them and subsequently track their movements.  Incidents of promulgation and use of false passports in Syrian refugee camps have numbered in the thousands,5 which benefits extremists and undesirable actors with concealed identities more than true refugees.  Not only can extremist actors gain undetected entry through unprotected border spaces, they can enter “legally” using false identities which can easily be shed once arrived in Canada.  Solely on admission of population masses, states increased their vulnerability by confusing their ability to identify threats and to track or deny their movements.

A prepared society would have urgently studied and amended the agreement in the last two years and developed greater awareness of the security threats posed by mass illegal entries.  The problem is quickly expanding to exceed our capacity to prevent or respond to it, and it is still small in scale.  Recent migration trends are only fractions of the over 30,000 Syrian refugees Canada received at the beginning of 2017, or the millions of refugees in Turkey, Greece, Sweden Germany, France and Italy.  There is still no final plan for responding to migration events, although calls from the federal opposition, the public and the media to the Government of Canada to develop one are intensifying.  The situation remains unchanged: the legal, security and humanitarian problem persists and there is no effort being made to respond to immediate needs or develop strategic objectives.

Societal and security consequences of influxes

Consequences of influxes fall into two categories: local, in which consequences for individuals destabilize them and thus their local communities; and state (or regional), in which political, security and social consequences occur.  There is risk that asylum seekers not properly received and acclimatized will experience economic, health and social consequences.  The obvious risks to the state are its sovereignty over its borders, national security threats from infiltrating actors, and significant financial and political liability for the long-term effects of influxes.

There are numerous programs for the needs of newcomers to Canada, but they do not adequately support the complex needs of asylum seekers.  If the seekers are not heavily supported upon their arrival, there is potential that they will fall upon already-heavily burdened social services, or into crime.  Existing immigration programs are available or accessible to asylum seekers.  Economic immigration, refugee, and temporary work and living programs accept up to 300,000 foreign nationals every year,6 but they are designed to receive educated, trained, professional people (with the exception of refugees, which asylum seekers are distinct from).  Only in April 2018 was significant funding announced for asylum claimant intake and processing ($173 million over two years).7  There has been no time to implement this funding, so the only federal measure taken to respond to the crisis has not been affected yet.  Resources have been allotted but not operationalized—it is as though the money doesn’t exist.  If the asylum seekers are not properly assessed, their basic needs cannot be determined and their individual basic security becomes problematic.  It is at this point in the intake process that criminality and risk assessments are conducted.  If they are not, or are conducted poorly, national security risk increases.

The patchwork of superficial solutions to the asylum seeker crisis includes jobs for our newest arrivals.  Over 12,500 work permits have been issued to asylum seekers in Québec since 1 April 2017, but there were 12,000 claims made nationally between January and April of 2018 alone.8  That is a half-measure that does not resolve reliance on social services systems: presumably, the majority of the remaining claimants are not working legally or productively or at all.  Issuing work permits to new arrivals could be controversial: it is unfair to those who have legally entered Canada through established processes, but it also offsets the impact of the seekers by making them responsible for their own economic and personal well-being.  Québec is suffering from a labour shortage and enjoying a record-low unemployment rate,9 but there are still many unemployed citizens who would likely not appreciate the additional competition from their newest neighbours.  Resentment and alienation are real factors that need to be considered when receiving asylum seekers.  Disregarding partisanship, one should consider how changes in public support for current provincial and federal governments might subtly and indirectly challenge good public administration if there are dramatic ideological shifts in legislatures or the House of Commons after their next respective elections.

Canada’s permanent social infrastructure could not support the Syrian refugee influx in early 2017 and will not be able to support this influx.  For example, the healthcare needs of the Syrian refugees were beyond ordinary legal or systemic capabilities: the Interim Federal Health Plan was needed to provide basic health, dental, vision and prescription drug coverage.10  There is an inherent assumption that the new arrivals are in an “interim” period in which they are without care.  For those who will find themselves unable to meet their basic needs, their care will need to be ongoing and an “interim” plan will not suffice.  Healthcare provision to the refugees is in the public’s best interest, as illustrated by the range of health hazards to the public that the Syrian influx posed.  The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care recommended testing for diseases including HIV, tuberculosis, malaria, cholera and numerous other significant threats.11  Whether or not likelihood of transmission of those diseases is high is less important than our duty of care to our current population.

Integration issues are a taboo but significant concern.  European countries have experienced them acutely.  The 2015 New Year’s Eve mass sexual assaults in Cologne resulted in 516 criminal complaints and public criticism of Germany’s refugee intake strategy.12  Criminality and social cohesion are just as important factors as terrorism threats.  Failure to achieve a reasonable amount of assimilation (i.e. “no sexual assault” is a low, achievable standard) could ultimately be more damaging than a dramatic explosion at a symbolic target.  Public political opposition to migrant integration issues in several European nations has been strong in the last several years, and a resurgence of nationalist political support indicates that public appetite has shifted significantly. 

Responding to the current situation in Canada

To respond to the current influx situations in Canada, the combined governments must immediately develop concepts of operation, strategic plans and operational plans.  There are precedents from which to draw lessons learned: previous asylum seeker influxes and the international Syrian refugee crisis, as well as displacement of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, are excellent case studies.  Concepts of operation will provide an impetus for coordination, collaboration and information sharing.  They will determine how organizations and governments will work together and communicate in a unified fashion. However, this has not happened to date.  

Hand-in-hand with planning commitments, needs assessments should be conducted based on existing asylum claimants and lessons learned from previous events.  While they would not identify every possible nuance, they will support strategic planning across multiple jurisdictions and mandates.  Provincial and federal ministries would be able to conceptualize funding and service needs that will dampen the impacts of totally unprepared asylum seekers residing in Canada for a length of time, whether or not they are finally admitted.  If some idea of their needs is obtained, we can avoid significantly delayed funding announcements without plans to affect changes. 

Strategic plans will outline means and methods to achieve broad outcomes such as identifying and repatriating all persons who pose security risks; intercepting, assessing and accommodating all illegally entering people; or improving waiting times for the Immigration & Refugee Board.  Operational plans will outline specific actions to be taken by specific actors, such as the RCMP continuing interdiction operations, the Canada Border Services Agency showing more direct leadership of the border crisis, or Immigrations, Refugees and Citizenship Canada more proactively creating and distributing intelligence products.

The situation is already extremely urgent. The City of Toronto has requested Ontario’s and Canada’s assistance supporting over 2,000 refugee claimants per night in its shelter systems at a projected cost of $64.5 million this year alone,13 as the federal Immigration Minister discusses the possibility of amending the Safe Third Country Agreement while vehemently avoiding solutions.14 Societal impacts are occurring right now.  Two thousand beds are unavailable to those who might normally need them, and 2,000 asylum seekers who should not have illegally entered at all, and afterward should have been appropriately managed, are being institutionalized.  It is administratively unacceptable to allow more vulnerable people to fall into a system already struggling to support local communities.  Doing so demonstrates the totality of Canada’s inability to manage this emerging issue.  

Regardless of their legal right or any ideological preference, the asylum seekers are entering Canada in greater numbers every day.  We need to prepare a whole-of-society response to this hazard in order to preserve domestic and individual security.


  1. Markusoff, J. (03 February 2017). “The new underground railroad”. In Maclean’s. Retrieved from
  2. Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). (23 April 2018). 2017 Asylum Claims. Government of Canada. Retrieved from
  3. IRCC. (05 December 2002). Final Text of the Safe Third Country Agreement. Government of Canada. Retrieved from
  4. Reuters. (05 February 2016). German Spy Agency says ISIS Sending Fighters Disguised as Refugees. In Reuters. Retrieved from
  5. Dr. Taillon, J.P. De B. (11 March 2015). Europe’s Migrant Crisis: Implications for Canada (Part 2). In The Mackenzie Institute. Retrieved from
  6. IRCC. (09 February 2018). Understanding Canada’s Immigration System. Government of Canada. Retrieved from
  7. IRCC. (19 April 2018). Members of the Ad Hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Irregular Migration meet to discuss latest influx. Government of Canada. Retrieved from
  8. Ibid.
  9. Hinkson, K. (05 January 2018). Health, retail sectors help drive Quebec’s jobless rate to historic low. In CBC News. Retrieved from
  10. Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. (21 January 2016). Syrian Refugee Early Assessment Considerations for Primary Care Providers. Government of Ontario. Retrieved from
  11. Ibid.
  12. The Associated Press. (10 January 2016). Cologne mass sex assaults appear planned, co-ordinated, German Justice Minister says”. In CBC News. Retrieved from
  13. CityNews. (26 April 2018). Tory urgently requesting funds from province, feds for refugee resettlement. In CityNews. Retrieved from
  14. Von Scheel, E. (05 May 2018). Immigration minister insists no formal proposal to change the Safe Third Country Agreement is on the table. In CBC News. Retrieved from
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Simon Wells
Simon D.H. Wells is a former emergency management officer and current graduate student in Royal Roads University’s Human Security & Peacebuilding program. After several years in the Canadian Armed Forces, Simon transitioned to emergency management and served as an operations and plans officer and a logistician in several emergency response operations. His research interests include CBRNE weapons, logistics operations, and foreign policy. Outside the defence and security world, Simon enjoys reading, exercise, restaurants, and the Toronto Blue Jays.