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Don’t blame Trump for asylum-seekers, says immigration minister

By Peter Mazereeuw      

Many of those crossing the border spent very little time in the U.S. before heading to Canada.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, pictured earlier this year, once again defended Canada's Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. in an appearance before the House Immigration Committee on March 20. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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The wave of asylum-seekers crossing from the United States into Canada was not spurred by the immigration policies of the Donald Trump government in the U.S., says Canada’s immigration minister.

Asylum claims began rising in 2015. Mr. Trump won the presidential election late last year and was inaugurated earlier this year. A survey of those who crossed into Manitoba from the U.S. last month found that 97 per cent had spent less than two months in the United States before heading North, Ahmed Hussen (York South-Weston, Ont.) told the House Immigration Committee on March 20.

“This is definitely not specific to the incoming U.S. administration,” he said.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly attempted to institute a travel ban for several Muslim-majority countries, and has moved to ramp up deportations of illegal immigrants.

Most of the asylum-seekers who crossed into Manitoba in February were male, and most never filed asylum claims in the U.S. before coming to Canada, said the minister. Of 143 claimants, 65 were originally from Somalia—from which Mr. Hussen himself came to Canada as a refugee in 1993—another 60 were from neighbouring Djibouti, and five were from Ghana, he said.

Mr. Hussen also confirmed that, as reported earlier this month by the Canadian Press, many of the asylum-seekers crossing north into Manitoba and into Quebec held U.S. visas.

“That is definitely a concern for us, and it shows us that there needs to be more conversations had with our American counterparts to address that,” he told the committee.

Mr. Hussen told The Hill Times he didn’t know why people with U.S. visas were coming to seek asylum in Canada.

“It’s something that we’re working with our American counterparts to figure out, and we are very hopeful that they will work with us to sort of provide more analysis and information,” he said.

Mr. Hussen again held firm in the meeting to the government’s support for the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, when asked by NDP MP Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.), her party’s immigration critic, to reconsider suspending the deal that requires that Canada turn back those who seek asylum at an official border crossing, but provide a hearing to consider refugee status for those who sneak across into Canadian territory without going through an official crossing.

”If we eliminate that agreement or suspend that agreement, we will have disorder,” he said.

Points of disorder

The soft-spoken Mr. Hussen got a rough ride from the opposition in what was one of the more spirited meetings of the House Immigration Committee.

Conservative MP David Tilson (Dufferin-Caledon, Ont.) kicked off the meeting by requesting a separate appearance from Mr. Hussen in May to study the main estimates, instead of trying to cover the main estimates, supplementary estimates, and the ministerial mandate letter for Mr. Hussen all in one meeting, as had been scheduled.

Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj (Etobicoke Centre, Ont.), the committee chair, responded that it was at his discretion to set the agenda for committee meetings. After more polite squabbling and a lengthy staredown over the timing of motions and who held the floor, Mr. Tilson called for a vote on the chair’s decision, that was, predictably, in the chair’s favour along party lines.

Mr. Hussen came under fire next from Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.), her party’s immigration critic, who, reminding the minister of the limited time allotted to her, repeatedly cut him off when his answers didn’t come straight to the point, prompting all manner of gavel-banging and calls for decorum.

Mr. Hussen later got similar treatment from Ms. Kwan, who interrupted the minister to ask another question when he didn’t answer the first quickly enough.

“Welcome to the committee Mr. Minister, I hope you’re enjoying yourself today,” said Mr. Tilson when it came to his turn, to laughter from around the table.

90 per cent unemployment for government-backed Syrian refugees

Under questioning on the status of Syrian refugees, Mr. Hussen told the committee that just 10 per cent of those who had been sponsored by the government had found jobs so far.

That matters because the federal government stops financially supporting government-assisted refugees one year after they arrive, and more than 15,000 government-backed Syrian refugees have now been in Canada for at least that long.

Mr. Hussen told the committee that the seemingly low employment rate was actually typical for government-assisted refugees after their first year.

The provinces and territories shoulder the cost of providing social assistance to government-assisted refugees who have run past the one year mark. Mr. Hussen told The Hill Times he had not received any complaints from the provinces so far about those costs.

Ms. Rempel, however, criticized the government for not being upfront about the costs that were likely to come with bringing in government-assisted refugees, who typically don’t fare as well for the first decade in Canada as those who are privately sponsored by Canadians. They tend to have poorer language skills.

“The Liberals have always made this about the quota number of people that are coming into the country, rather than being transparent with Canadians on the cost of the plan that’s required to integrate,” she told The Hill Times.

More than half of privately sponsored Syrian refugees have now found employment, Mr. Hussen told the committee.

A July 2016 study released by Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada showed that, between 2002 and 2012, about 40 per cent of government-assisted refugees had found jobs after 12 months in Canada, versus about 70 per cent of privately sponsored refugees. Government-assisted refugees are often more vulnerable and have less community support than those who are privately sponsored.

After a decade, employment in both groups sat at around 55 per cent, the study showed.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

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