Mitigation and Response Options for Population Influxes into Canada

A previous contribution warned of the domestic security threats posed by population influxes into Canada.  As Canada is societally and operationally unprepared, it is vulnerable to local and regional consequences that impact national security, confidence in government and social cohesion.  This is not a problem of ideology or xenophobia; rather, it is a practical one with a dilemma between defence of the public interest and humanitarian concern.  Last week, the United States’ immigration policy shifted noticeably twice and a chaotic and politically divisive debate about illegal immigration response came to the forefront.

The current migration situation in North America

President Trump ordered implementation of a zero-tolerance immigration detention policy that saw children and parents separated while awaiting detention.  Following extraordinary public pressure from all quarters, he quickly ordered a policy change that allows families to be detained together while still holding them for hearings for their illegal entries, but the 2,300 children and their parents in custody will not be reunited until after their processes have completed.1  During this incident, the Prime Minister of Canada has maintained communications discipline, unlike his January 2017 message in response to the so-called “Muslim Ban” of travellers from seven war- and jihad-torn countries.

We have established that the Safe Third Country Agreement provides a loophole through which illegal entries or “asylum seekers” might access Canada, despite Canada not recognizing their asylum claims once landed in the US, but mandating assessments and hearings if they cross the border illegally.2  The White House reported in a press release that over 110,000 “unaccompanied alien children” have been released into the United States since April 2016, and over the last year the number of such children arriving at ports of entry has increased by over 600 per cent.3  There is an epidemic of vulnerable youths being cast in to the US with no support and presumably few connections.  The White House also reported that asylum claimants have increased tenfold since 2011 but their successful claim rate has dropped since 2009.4  Both the US and Canada are experiencing significant increases in migration to their borders but there does not appear to be credibility to the claims of asylum, which leads to questions of authenticity and risk associated with admission.

In Canada, mitigation measures should be developed in the form of a more robust public communication strategy.  Such a strategy would inform asylum seekers of their low likelihood of acceptance into Canada and discourage ineligible or fraudulent claimants from attempting to challenge our claimant intake process.  Response options include increasing law enforcement interception capacity at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Québec and other potential hot spots, and developing quality intelligence to determine the most likely entry points and communities of interest; absolutely refusing to receive more claimants unless they have filed a legal claim at a port of entry; and, improving immigration detention centres’ quality and capacity in order to increase our ability to detain illegal entrants and deter future illegal entrants from trying to test the Safe Third Country Agreement loophole.


After the August 2017 spike in influxes into Québec, a national strategic plan was developed and the Government of Canada has been trying to communicate that illegal entry is not an effective method to gain entry to the country.5  Messaging was a major concern in the previous crisis, which was very likely influenced by a frothy Twitter message from Prime Minister Trudeau in January 2017 expressing welcome to those in transit.  Canada has still not adequately communicated its intolerance for illegal entry.  As of April 2018, the majority demographic of illegal entrants had shifted from French-speaking Haitians to English-speaking Nigerians, many of whom were in transit through the United States and Québec on to Toronto and Calgary.6  Not only has the problem not been quelled, it has expanded in scope to include communities not necessarily driven by changes in temporary protected status in the United States.  We’ve earned ourselves a reputation.

Canada has communicated its intent and criteria to receive asylum seekers and refugees at the political level, but needs to develop local communication strategies.  Canada authored its own descriptive chapter in the United Nations High Commission on Refugees Resettlement Handbook, including distinctions between refugee and asylum seeker criteria.7 Of course, asylum seekers, refugees and illegal entrants don’t pick up copies of the handbook prior to migrating.  Canadian cabinet ministers experienced some success in dispelling rumours and misinformation last summer by travelling to Miami and Los Angeles to hold town halls for prospective migrants. 

The Government of Canada also began to explicitly communicate that illegal entry was not welcome; however, their Twitter messages fell short of explicitly stating that migrants should not come unless they meet refugee, asylum seeker, or legal entry criteria.  That is the messaging shortfall that exacerbates the problem.  The delivery method is also ineffective: a few town halls and a spattering of tweets and social media messages is not enough.  An engagement strategy in which officials meet with community, religious and business leaders to communicate policy needs to be developed and executed.

Response options

The Government of Canada recently confirmed that a national strategic response plan had been developed, and that it was flexible, scalable and phased in nature,8 which implies some ability to operationalize the response objectives.  It remains unclear what the exact approach is beyond intercepting and triaging illegally entering people.  There are three obvious courses of action to respond to the ongoing influx and future incidents: increase illegal entry interception in order to prevent high-risk individuals from uncontrolled entry; refuse all illegal entries in order to prevent the above; and, increase detention capacity so that illegal entries do not strain existing systems and processes and future entrants are discouraged, while treating them humanely while in custody.

The first option Canada has to respond to the ongoing influx crisis is to increase law enforcement interception capacity at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Québec and other potential hot spots, in order to ensure positive control is maintained on all illegally entering people.  The overwhelming majority of entries wish to be intercepted and use the Roxham Road crossing in “Lacolle” for that reason; however, we must be certain that there are no other undetected entries as there may have been in Emerson, Manitoba and other locations across our expansive borders.  There is an implied need to increase Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and federal, provincial, and municipal police presence around actual or potential hot spots, but an important support will be developing quality intelligence to determine the most likely entry points and communities of interest.  If a well-informed risk assessment can identify potential points of entry based on migrant community demographics and their resident counterparts in Canada, authorities can pre-position resources to intercept illegal entries more efficiently.

Canada might altogether refuse to receive any more claimants who have illegally entered.  That is a more legally dubious course because the Safe Third Country Agreement requires that all claimants be given a hearing;9 therefore, Canada would be required to entertain claims from anybody who has entered the country even if it is clear that their claim is untenable – which many will be, else the claim would have been made legally at a port of entry.  This course of action is best applied to those who have not yet entered the country.  Even then, migrants have some legal right to attempt to enter a country to make claims, so rather than physically denying movement we must turn to policy to emphatically deny illegal entry.  The Safe Third Country Agreement has been criticized as out-of-date, with some calling the U.S. inhospitable to seekers and claimants – but with 55,000 pending claims in Canada as of 30 April 2018,10 it is clear that the U.S. is safe for transit and settlement, as greater numbers attempt to gain entry in the south.  The Safe Third Country Agreement must be amended to remove universal mandatory hearings.  Follow-on legislation or directives in Canada must be created to enable the CBSA to immediately and locally deny movement to obviously ineligible claimants.

Finally, Canada might improve immigration detention centres’ quality and capacity in order to increase our ability to detain and hold illegal entrants and deter future illegal entrants from trying to test the Safe Third Country Agreement loophole.  Three major detention centers in Laval, Toronto, and Vancouver form the bulk of Canada’s ability to house illegal migrants; unfortunately, the CBSA and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale are releasing their control of illegal migration by examining alternatives to detention like community releases and, in the Minister’s case, ordering the CBSA to avoid detaining migrants at all.11  While humanitarian groups generally dislike immigration detention centre conditions and liken them to prisons – which they are similar to, because an offense against the state has been committed – Canada’s system is not inhumane or unjust.  

Ensuring we have the capacity to house as many illegally entering migrants as possible in comfort will prevent overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  City of Toronto Mayor John Tory has warned the federal government that as of 20 June 2018, almost half of the shelter users in the city were asylum seekers or refugees, and Toronto’s infrastructure would not be able to continue to support them beyond 09 August when they will be forced to expel 800 people from temporary housing and cancel city programs to accommodate them.12  The federal concept of using alternatives to detention is insensitive to the operational reality at the local level.  Surely, if the City of Toronto no longer has capacity to support the influx, meaningful capacity does not exist elsewhere.  Concurrently increasing the quality of services provided so that longer-term periods may be accommodated will relieve the immediate pressure on the intake system that characterizes the migrant crisis.

The influx crisis is established, understood, and ongoing.  It is time for Canada to act decisively by mitigating future influxes and responding to the current ones by ceasing them.  Immigration is not the problem: those that enter the country legally, regardless of where they are from or what they come with and under what circumstances they arrive, are now and always have been welcome.  Illegal migration influxes must be quelled in order to reduce national security and social stability risks.  Canada’s first duty is to its current citizens, residents, and landed immigrants.  Our systems are humane but they should not be too flexible.


  1. M.D. Shear, A. Goodnough, & M. Haberman, (20 June 2018), Trump retreats on separating families, but thousands will remain apart, in The New York Times, retrieved from
  2. Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), (05 December 2002), Final text of the Safe Third Country Agreement, Government of Canada, retrieved from
  3. White House Press Secretary, (19 June 2018), The crisis at the border by the numbers, Washington, D.C.: The White House, retrieved from
  4. White House Press Secretary, The crisis at the border by the numbers.
  5. The Canadian Press, (21 April 2018), “What you need to know about the ongoing influx of asylum seekers in Canada,” in The National Post, retrieved from
  6. L. Perreaux, (19 April 2018), “Federal decision to ease pressure of asylum seekers on Quebec raises concern at other destinations”, in The Globe and Mail, retrieved from
  7. Government of Canada, (2018), “Country chapter: Canada”, in UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, New York, NY: United Nations, retrieved from
  8. The Canadian Press, (21 April 2018), “What you need to know about the ongoing influx of asylum seekers in Canada,” in The National Post, retrieved from
  9. IRCC, Final text of the Safe Third Country Agreement.
  10. M. Gollom, (26 June 2018), “Scrapping Safe Third Country deal may not lead to huge influx of asylum seekers”, in CBC News, retrieved from
  11. B. Shingler, (21 June 2018), “Canada aims to curb number of migrant children held in detention”, in CBC News, retrieved from
  12. R. Warnica, (26 June 2018), “Toronto faces having to close community centres, cancel programs to house migrant tide from U.S.”, in The National Post, 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.