Canada: Asylum seekers risk lives to cross border from Trump's America

March 31, 2017
Asylum seekers cross from the US into Canada.

Veteran Canadian-based socialist and activist Ernie Tate has been writing to English group Left Unity on the struggles in Canada provoked by the rise of Donald Trump south of the border.

A lifelong revolutionary who migrated to Canada from Northern Ireland as a young man, Tate was one of the most important activists of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the 1960s and has recently produced a two volume memoir, Revolutionary Activism of the 1950s and 1960s.

His third letter to Left Unity is abridged below.


A by-product of present toxic atmosphere in the United States against immigrants and refugees has been a sharp rise in the numbers of asylum seekers walking across the Canadian border in recent weeks — often placing themselves and their families in harm’s way from our extremely harsh winter.

This is also a consequence of the military interventions by the US empire in the Arab and African world — now greatly destabilised as a result. Like elsewhere, reactionary forces in Canada are trying to exploit the situation to stoke up anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment.

Canadians are seeing the refugee crises play out in real time every night on television. Journalists are patrolling the border to see who is coming across and interviewing those they find, even taking them to safety.

‘Third Safe Country’

The images are truly appalling, as the asylum seekers frantically try to get around Canada’s “Third Safe Country” agreement with the US. Signed in 2002, its main purpose was to stem the flow to Canada of refugees fleeing Latin America’s dictatorial regimes — especially Colombia’s. The year before, more than 45,000 people crossed the border.

This agreement was sarcastically renamed the “None is Too Many” agreement, alluding to a statement by a Canadian immigration official during World War II about Jewish refugees seeking asylum in Canada from European fascism when many were turned away. The agreement was vigorously opposed by civil liberties groups, churches, refugee support groups, trade unions and the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP).

However, there’s a loophole in the agreement, which many seeking to cross the border have discovered. Because Canada deems the US to be “a safe third country” at legal entry points — customs and border posts — claimants for refugee status can be refused entry.

But if they are able to avoid these border stations and make their way across the border, usually on foot, they have a right under the Geneva Refugee Convention, of which Canada is a signatory, to make an application for asylum, no matter how they arrived.

Those seen on television every night are taking advantage of that loophole. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has been arresting them as they come over. They are questioned and handed over to the Canadian Border Security Authorities, where they can make a claim for asylum and then are released.

The migrants and asylum seekers cross the border on foot, through open fields and walking the back-roads, along railway tracks and trails for long hours through the night at so-called “illegal entry” points all along the border — but mainly in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

Many travel as individuals, usually young men, but families are also seen, frequently carrying babies and with small children by their side, pulling their bags behind them, ill-prepared for the deep snow and sub-zero temperatures.

Terrible conditions

Such are the terrible conditions that many farmers are wondering what they’ll find in the fields once the snow melts in the spring. Recently, two young men from Ghana were discovered nearly frozen to death just outside the farming community of Emerson, Manitoba. Parts of their hands had to be amputated due to severe frostbite.

We are accustomed to seeing this kind of tragedy in Southern Europe and other places, where hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants have risked their lives on flimsy watercraft, in their attempt to find a safe haven. Although not on the same scale in terms of numbers, Canada is now witnessing its version of that crises.

The number of people crossing the border in this way has jumped significantly in the past few months, but it had been gradually rising in the previous years, long before Trump’s election. It is now estimated that up to 500,000 non-status migrants are living here, and it’s only going to rise.

Because of the intolerance and the xenophobic environment south of the border, and fears of being arrested by the security forces and jailed in detention centres, migrants are risking their lives to get to Canada. Last year, 7022 people crossed into Canada, up 40% from the year before. And with better weather now approaching, immigration authorities are expecting many more.

But in the midst of this sadness, there has been truly heartening and awe-inspiring solidarity from many local people from the small communities near the border. They have been out on the back-roads, frequently throughout the night, searching for migrants. They provide the migrants with warm food, often putting them up for the night and arranging for them to be housed in local community centres or in shelters.

In Toronto, almost 900 people have been taken in and municipal officials are demanding that the provincial and federal governments provide assistance. In a gesture of solidarity, several of Canada’s major cities — Toronto, Hamilton, London and Vancouver, with Ottawa and Edmonton presently considering it — have declared themselves “sanctuary cities”.

This is more a token than anything else, as they haven’t allocated resources to make it a reality. But it is meant to allow refugee claimants to apply for municipal services such as access to homeless shelters, community centres, libraries and police services, without the need to show proof of citizenship or residency.

With a population of just over 35 million, Canada has been much more generous than its next door neighbour on this issue. About 300,000 immigrants will enter the country this year, out of which 30,000 most likely will be refugees.

Soon after his election in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sharply differentiated himself from the previous prime minister, the hard-right Stephen Harper, and from the Muslim-hating Donald Trump, in welcoming into the country more than 40,000 Syrian refugees.


When Trump announced his infamous anti-Muslim ban, Trudeau pointedly tweeted to the world that, “Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith.” Nice sentiment, but it should be noted that there’s an element of hypocrisy.

The National Post’s Michael Barutciski recently pointed out: “The fact that Canadian visa policy makes it impossible for most people from the designated countries to enter Canada legally is an inconvenient truth ignored by those who want to hear a compassionate message.”

Nonetheless, the “Safe Third Country” agreement and how it is being applied has provoked a wide-ranging discussion. Primarily because of the extreme physical danger the migrants are confronting, national civil liberties groups, immigrant support groups, unions and the NDP are pressuring the government to repeal it. The US, especially with Trump’s election, they say, can no longer be considered “safe” for asylum seekers. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has even characterised Trump as a “fascist”.

Like in many places around the world, opposition to refugees is an issue around which all reactionary forces are mobilising. They seek to stoke and exploit the rise of Islamophobia and racism generally.

Newspapers in Canada report an appreciable rise in attacks on mosques, synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. An especially horrible example of this came in January in Quebec, where laws have been proposed to ban public servants wearing hijabs, and six Muslim worshippers were murdered by an anti-Muslim fanatic.

Conservative politicians are supporting the “Safe Third Country” agreement, but demand the Liberals deport those that cross the border, or charge them for their “crime”. They talk of refugees “jumping the queue”, and criticise the Liberals for not enforcing the agreement more forcefully.

It is notable, however, that the Tories have been somewhat cautious in how they have approached this issue. They have still not quite recovered from the last election, when their targeting of immigrant groups lost them many votes, contributing to their defeat.

Dog whistling

But Kelly Leitch, a cabinet minister in the Harper government, seems to be ignoring that lesson. A candidate in the Conservative Party leadership race to fill Harper’s shoes, she is doing her best to imitate Trump with what the Globe and Mail called “an unmistakable bit of racist dog whistling”.

Leitch is proposing that all new immigrants be questioned about whether or not they subscribe to “Canadian values”, whatever those are, before they are allowed into the country.

It is unlikely the Liberals will repeal the agreement and offend the new US administration, which is questioning the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico and the US. It wants to “tweak” it, under a threat of imposing heavy import taxes on Canadian exports to the US — worth almost C$2 billion every day.

Trudeau is unlikely to do anything that will annoy the new president. Recently Ralph Goodall, the federal government’s Minster of Public Safety, confirmed this by stating emphatically that there would be no changes to the “Safe Third Country” agreement, despite the widespread opposition to it.

So it will remain as it is for now — and asylum seekers will continue endangering their lives as they seek to make their way across the border.

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