Mitigation and Response Options for Population Influxes into Canada

By June 27, 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.

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. Recent events in the southern United States have demonstrated yet again that security and oppression can be bedfellows.  It is the duty of States to ensure their legitimate security measures uphold human rights.

The current migration situation in North America

President of the United States Donald 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 would not be reunited until after their processes have completed.  During this incident, the Prime Minister of Canada maintained communications discipline, unlike his January 2017 message in response to the “Muslim Ban” of travellers from 7 Middle Eastern countries, which may be one of the causes of the 2017 Asylum Seeker influx in Québec.  The Trump Administration went on to create well-publicized concentration camps with deplorable conditions that explicitly violate the human rights of irregular entrants from Central America and Mexico.

We have established that the Safe Third Country Agreement provides a loophole through which irregular entries or “asylum seekers” might access Canada despite not recognizing their asylum claims once landed in the U.S., but mandating assessments and hearings if they cross the border irregularly.  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 percent.  There is a crisis of vulnerable youths being cast in to the U.S. with no supports 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.  Both the U.S. and Canada are experiencing significant increases in migration to their borders but there does not appear to be a correlating rate of credibility to the claims of asylum, which leads to questions of authenticity and risk associated with admission, as well as to the appropriateness of existing political and legal mechanisms to address what will no doubt be a turbulent future of migration driven by economic, climate, and conflict issues.

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 moderate 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; and, reinforce the concept of operations that respects individual liberty, unencumbers the State from detaining and respectfully maintaining individuals, and still enables situational awareness and tracking by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).


After the August 2017 spike in influxes into Québec, a national strategic plan was developed and the Government of Canada tried to communicate via social media that irregular entry is not an effective method to gain entry to the country.  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 decisively communicated its position on irregular 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.  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.  That could set these people up to fail by inspiring them to move to a place reputed for acceptance, only to be rejected based on the legal reality of humanitarian law.

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. Of course, asylum seekers, refugees, and irregular 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 irregular 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 confirmed that a national strategic response plan had been developed, and that it was flexible, scalable, and phased in nature, which implies some ability to operationalize the response objectives.  It remains unclear what the exact approach is beyond intercepting and triaging irregularly entering people.  There are two obvious courses of action to respond to the ongoing influx and future incidents: increase irregular entry interception in order to prevent high-risk and/or vulnerable individuals from uncontrolled entry; and, reinforce the concept of operations for irregular entry reception so that admissible people are released from government control (and thus responsibility) as soon as possible while still reporting to the IRB as necessary.

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 irregularly entering people prior to their admissibility assessments.  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 receive, assess, and admit or return irregular entries more efficiently.

Canada cannot altogether refuse to receive any more irregular entrants because the Safe Third Country Agreement requires that all claimants be given a hearing; therefore, Canada is required to entertain claims from anybody who has entered the country even if it is clear that their claim is untenable.  Asylum seekers have a legal right to attempt to enter a country to make claims. 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, it is unclear that Canada has the capacity to accept further migration.  

Finally, Canada might reinforce its concept of operations so that unless absolutely necessary, asylum seekers are immediately released with a requirement to report to their IRB hearing as summoned and to report to the CBSA if required.  Three major detention centers in Laval, Toronto, and Vancouver form the bulk of Canada’s ability to house illegal migrants and deportees; fortunately, the CBSA and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale are unencumbering these detention centres of all but those with illegal or criminal characteristics by implementing alternatives to detention like community releases and, in the Minister’s case, ordering the CBSA to avoid detaining migrants at all.  While humanitarian groups generally dislike immigration detention centres and liken them to prisons, Canada’s system is neither inhumane nor unjust and respect for individual liberties has fortunately been upheld.  Canadian detention centres are used for established criminals, not for vulnerable people.  

Ensuring we have the capacity to temporarily house as many illegally entering migrants as possible in comfort will prevent overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  City of Toronto Mayor John Tory 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 a few weeks when they would be forced to expel 800 people from temporary housing and cancel city programs to accommodate them.  The federal concept of using detention or detention alternatives 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 housing and support services provided so that longer-term accommodation 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.  Immigration is not the problem: entrants, regardless of where they are from or what they come with and under what circumstances they arrive, are now and always have been welcome.  It is Canada’s lack of preparedness for this ongoing phenomenon that impacts public administration.

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.