The domestic security threat of population influxes to Canada

Posted By May 31, 2018 No Comments

Author’s note: This article was updated on 25 July 2019 in response to the migration and detention human rights abuse issue occurring in the southern United States.  The author seeks to directly clarify the profound difference between legitimate security measures and human rights abuses, spelling out the virtue of many asylum entries in order to prevent extremist rhetoric adopting legitimate security as a cloak.   It is the opinion of the author that security and humanitarian compassion are compatible: in the 2017 Asylum Seeker influx into Québec, Canada compassionately but effectively received a population influx in a way that protected its own interests and the rights of the Seekers.

Over the last several years, a trend of asylum seekers irregularly entering Canada have challenged federal and provincial governments to appropriately respond to and receive increasing numbers of migrant populations.  Recent debate in the House of Commons has centered 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 irregular entries seeking asylum occurred in October and November 2015 and occurred at numerous entry points in Ontario, Québec, and Manitoba (including the original hotspot, Emerson, Manitoba).  There are vulnerable points across the country’s border through which illegal, irregular, 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 alone irregularly 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 U.S. but prohibits removal of claimants from their final arrival country until a hearing has been held.  The Asylum Seekers know this and are entering irregularly to force a risk and eligibility assessment they would not receive if they had attempted to enter regularly.  Essentially, the agreement facilitates irregular entry into Canada as the Seekers are confident that once they’ve arrived in Canada, they are very likely to be allowed to stay.  Many are deemed eligible for entry according to their asylum claims and are rightly admitted and supported, but almost as great number are not eligible: this is the calculus of the irregular entrant.  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 not just to ineligible entrants, but to organized criminals and terrorists who might exploit the vulnerability of our borders.  This is very much a niche concern, but still a legitimate one.

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 actor’s violence; however, the discourse before and after the refugee reception operation seems to ignore or at least minimize the inherent vulnerabilities rendered by the operation.  German intelligence officials have observed extremist actors abusing their refugee assistance networks in order to successfully gain entry into Europe, 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 instead of entering at Ports of Entry could mean losing our only ability to intercept and identify them and subsequently track their movements.  Incidents of promulgation and use of false passports in Syrian refugee camps have numbered in thousands, which benefits extremists and undesirable actors with concealed identities at the expense of true refugees.  Not only can extremist or criminal actors gain undetected entry through unprotected border space, 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 Safe Third Country agreement in the last several years and developed greater awareness of the security threats posed by mass illegal entries.  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 are divided here broadly in to 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.  Economic immigration, refugee, and temporary work and living programs accept up to 300,000 foreign nationals every year, but they are designed to receive educated, trained, professional people (with the exception of refugees, which asylum seekers are distinct from).  Contrary to public perception, Canada’s willingness and ability to receive newcomers other than highly educated professionals is extremely limited. Only in April 2018 was significant funding announced for asylum claimant intake and processing ($173 million over two years).  If the asylum seekers are not properly received, their basic needs cannot be determined and their individual basic security becomes jeopardized.  While routine criminality and risk assessments are conducted at the beginning of the intake process, a needs assessment could just as easily be conducted to determine how acutely they require support and prevent aggravation of their vulnerability.

The patchwork of superficial solutions to the asylum seeker crisis includes jobs for our newest arrivals.  Over 12,500 work permits were issued to asylum seekers in Québec between April 2017 and April 2018, but there were 12,000 claims made nationally between January and April of 2018 alone.  That is a half-measure that does not resolve strain on social services systems or improve the Asylum Seeker’s ability to join their communities through work.   Issuing work permits to irregular entrants could be controversial: it is unfair to those who have regularly entered Canada through established processes, but it also offsets the total impact of the seekers by giving them responsibility for their own economic and personal well-being.  

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 health care 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.  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 due to their sudden and dramatic upheaval, their care will need to be ongoing and an “interim” plan will not suffice.  Health care 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.  The Governments of Canada and its provinces should therefore be able to provide this desperately needed medical care before they set objectives for receiving vulnerable people.  Alternately, they could anticipate asylum seekers and refugees as the concepts of economic and climate refugees begin to gain general credibility and begin to be promulgated.

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.  Criminality and social cohesion are just as important factors as sovereignty threats.  Failure to achieve a reasonable amount of assimilation (i.e. “no sexual assault” is a low, achievable standard”) could ultimately be more damaging to public acceptance of vulnerable populations than a dramatic explosion at a symbolic target misdirecting public fear.  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, and whether that is illiberal or not is irrelevant: voters and citizens think this way, so it is a potential point of friction.  The subsequent effects of extreme nationalism and populism are well-known: an unqualified President of a superpower abusing human rights and exercising autocratic control, loss of confidence in Merkel’s centrist Germany, and Brexit.

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 of operational successes and decisive political failures.  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, uniform fashion. That 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 create humane, compassionate, but well-administrated systems to receive, triage, settle, and move claimants.

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 irregularly 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. At the time this article was written, the City of Toronto had 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, as the federal immigration Minister discussed the possibility of amending the Safe Third Country Agreement while vehemently avoiding political action.   2,000 beds were unavailable to those who might normally need them, and 2,000 asylum seekers who should have been appropriately managed, are being institutionalized.  It is 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.  Asylum Seekers will become increasingly prominent in the coming years as economic disparity, climate change, and regional conflict displace more and more people.

Regardless of their perceived 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.

This repost contains updates by the author based on his changing assessment of the policies and practices dealing with migrants on the Southern US and Canadian borders.