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400 per day? Advocate questions reliability of summer border-crossing predictions after figures fall short

By Jolson Lim      

In April, the Quebec government said it had projections that around 400 migrants could enter into Canada daily this summer. Recent figures indicate an average of 47 people have crossed per day.

The office of Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, pictured at a press conference in the House foyer on June 1, says the federal government doesn't produce predictions but prepares for any scenario with border migration. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Recent figures on monthly border crossings show that a prediction made by the Quebec government on flows of people coming into Canada this summer—and one frequently cited by the media and federal Conservatives—has so far fallen flat, raising questions about how border-crossing predictions are handled, says one advocate.

In April, the Quebec government told the public that it was preparing for upwards of 400 people each day to cross irregularly into Canada through its border with the United States. The prediction made national headlines and was eventually referenced 18 times in the House of Commons, all but once by the official opposition.

But according to recent Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada data, the number of border crossings at irregular points of entry in June and July totalled 2,897, averaging out to slightly more than 47 per day. And now more than halfway through summer, there’s a narrowing chance migrant flows will average out to the Quebec figure.

“It’s of course important and valuable for the government to be making these kinds of predictions internally and to be sharing them with relevant departments, other levels of government, and with the politicians who have a responsibility to accountability,” said Alex Neve, general secretary of Amnesty International Canada, but “the need for those predictions to be constantly put in front of the public is debatable.”

Mr. Neve said the public prediction is a “perfect illustration” that even when government officials do their best work to anticipate border flows, “we simply don’t know in the end.” He said it’s generally difficult to accurately forecast the number of border crossers, making such specific projections of “questionable reliability, inherently.”

Where the estimate originates is from an April 16 press conference involving Quebec Immigration Minister David Heurtel. As reported by the Toronto Star, Mr. Heurtel said, “right now, there are projections on the table saying that we could go in the neighbourhood of 400 people per day.”

“Last year, we peaked at about 250 a day and that was considered massive.” At the press conference, the minister also asked Ottawa for more funding to help support asylum seekers.

Mr. Heurtel’s estimate made headlines in Quebec and across Canada, and the next day, the Conservatives referenced it on the floor of the House of Commons, the first of 17 times they did so during the spring sitting.

“The Prime Minister and his Liberals are asleep at the wheel. We are talking about 300 to 400 illegal migrants entering per day through Lacolle. It is going to be a chaotic mess,” said MP Steven Blaney (Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que.).

On April 18, MP Pierre Paul-Hus (Charlesbourg-Haute-Saint-Charles, Que.) said “this summer, 300 to 400 illegal immigrants will come to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle.”

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.) also posted a video on YouTube that day titled “Justin Trudeau #FAILS – 400 people illegally cross the border per day.”

“Four hundred,” she said in the video. “That is the number of people that are anticipated to illegally cross the Quebec-U.S. border into Canada every day in the summer months. So we conservatively call summer in Canada June through September. That’s about 48,000 people. That is crazy.” The video has received more than 8,600 views.

In an interview, Ms. Rempel said she took exception to the framing of this story, calling it “wrong” and an “obfuscation of issues,” and dismissed any notion that the prediction led to more public anxiety about border crossers.

“You’re talking about public perception and I’m talking about how many people we can support and how can we do that,” she said.

Ms. Rempel said she disagrees that governments can’t accurately predict migrant movements. She said federal officials collect and share data on the potential number of people to enter into Canada, the nationalities of such migrants, and how they’re entering.

“They should be able to say all of sudden, we’re getting a large spike from Nigeria, we understand what their travel plans are, let’s predict how many more are to come based on that,” she said.

“The fact the UN and global refugee networks like the [International Organization for Migration] are doing research on how many people are actually on the move and where their destinations are, says that can be predicted,” she added.

Ms. Rempel said predictions are needed to track costs associated for migrants entering irregularly and what the government’s opportunity cost—in economics, the value of picking one option over an alternative—is from supporting them. As an opposition MP, she said she works based on what information is offered by governments.

The Conservatives gradually stopped citing the prediction, but have called the border situation a “crisis,” and a recent Angus Reid poll found 67 per cent of Canadians believe the Tories’ characterization of the issue. The same poll also found 48 per cent of Canadians overestimated the number of migrants who have entered into Canada since the start of 2017. 

Craig Damian Smith, assistant director at the Global Migration Lab at the University of Toronto, said while it’s not impossible to get a correct prediction on migration flows, it’s complicated by a wide swath of push and pull factors often specific to a particular group or moment. He listed a few examples: from smuggling and enforcement overseas, to policy changes in the U.S. and Canada, to weather.

“The one-sentence answer is yes, we can do predictions in a short time frame, but the dynamics are always going to change. The other thing to consider is once an irregular migration system opens and starts to develop, it develops its own logics and own dynamics,” he said.

He was nevertheless skeptical of Ms. Rempel’s assertions, adding that international predictions could take months to make, even with the help of complex processors and algorithms.

Prof. Smith said the point of predictions is to help prepare for a potential crisis rather than it being a reflection of one. He’s currently researching the impact of U.S. policy on migrant flows into Canada.

He added that if governments offer predictions, activists may accuse the government of whipping up hysteria. But if they don’t, opposition MPs could accuse them of being secretive. In a more-perfect world, he said governments can offer public projections, scale their resources to reflect them, but not have it stoke public fears of a crisis.

Mathieu Genest, spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen (York South-Weston, Ont.), said federal officials get together and “conduct tabletop exercises and map out a number of different scenarios of people crossing the border.”

“This doesn’t result in any predictions, but ensures that we are ready for any future fluctuations,” he said. “Because of the challenges in making accurate predictions on something like asylum seekers, we plan for every possible scenario, and evaluate as time goes on to judge our readiness.”

Maxim Labrecque, press secretary for Mr. Heurtel, didn’t respond before deadline to questions provided to his office on Aug. 15.

Canadian representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, said it’s hard to predict migrant flows and that the public shouldn’t overly worry about migrant numbers and costs given the amount of resources Canada has relative to other countries in the world often handling far more refugees.

“Canada has the means to add 50,000 asylum seekers in one year,” he said. “Otherwise, we put a price tag on human life and I don’t think any Canadian would want that to happen. Canadian people are a compassionate people.”


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