Harvard study: Canada's snubbing of asylum-seekers spurs human smuggling

Tamil asylum seekers ship MV Sun Sea are escorted into CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C. Aug. 13, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

OTTAWA - A new Harvard Law School study paints a scathing portrait of Canada as a country that's increasingly slamming its doors on asylum-seekers and thereby unwittingly contributing to the human smuggling crisis.

The report by the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, obtained by The Canadian Press, accuses Ottawa of making it so difficult for refugees to claim asylum that it's pushing them into the hands of human smugglers, a state of affairs that sometimes puts lives at risk.

The exhaustive 107-page study, entitled Bordering on Failure, found that some asylum-seekers have drowned attempting to swim across the Niagara River to Canada. One man lost both legs while trying to cross a railway bridge into Canada.

The Harvard report also shows Canada and the U.S. are failing to meet their obligations to asylum-seekers under international and domestic laws, said Efrat Arbel, one of the report's authors.

"Canada for many years really did extend meaningful protection to asylum-seekers and that's something to be very proud of, something to live up to," she added in an interview on the eve of the study's official release.

Indeed, the report says, Canada served as an example to the United States in the 1980s, inspiring its southern neighbour to be more welcoming to central American asylum-seekers who were fleeing war-torn regimes in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

"Unfortunately what this study has shown is that, increasingly, Canada's really reneging on its commitment to asylum-seekers and therefore undermining its own history of refugee protection," Arbel said.

The Canadian border is now being "systematically closed to asylum-seekers," she said, alleging it's a situation that's grown increasingly dire under the federal Conservatives.

"The current government has implemented fundamental changes to the refugee determination process, so now we not only have measures that make it harder for asylum-seekers to lawfully enter the country, we also have additional measures that make it harder for them to make their case once they're here."

A spokesman for Immigration Minister Chris Alexander defended the government's record in opening its doors to genuine refugees, pointing to a United Nations refugee agency report that ranked Canada at No. 1 in resettled refugee arrivals per capita in 2012.

"Canada welcomes one out of every 10 refugees resettled around the world, more than almost any other country in the world," Alexis Pavlich said in an email.

"We are world leaders with respect to refugee protection, including recent commitments to resettle refugees from Iraq, Iran, Bhutan and Syria, for example. Recent reforms to Canada's asylum system provide faster protection to genuine refugees, and crack down on human smugglers."

The Harvard report, nonetheless, takes aim at a spate of Canada-U.S. border security agreements, saying they've created "incentives for unauthorized border crossings and dangerous activities that threaten the lives and safety of asylum-seekers."

"Tragedies of asylum-seekers losing life or limb in desperate attempts to cross the border and seek refuge in Canada now occur. These stories show the immense human toll that comes with disallowing persecuted people the right to seek asylum in Canada," the study continued.

The study was particularly scornful of the Safe Third Country agreement, a Canada-U.S. deal implemented in 2004 in which both countries recognize one another as safe places for refugee claimants to seek protection.

It means Canada can turn back potential refugees at the Canada-U.S. border on the basis they must pursue their claims in America, the country where they first arrived.

But critics have long argued the U.S. is not always a safe country for people fleeing persecution, pointing out that more restrictive American regulations have meant that some claimants rejected by the U.S. were later accepted by Canada.

The Harvard study is being made public a week after a newly declassified report showed that smugglers were caught trying to sneak dramatically more people into Canada in 2011 than over the previous year at largely unguarded Canada-U.S. border crossings.

That binational report, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act, said that 487 people were apprehended in 2011 as smugglers attempted to spirit them into Canada at remote locales. That's up from 308 in 2010.

It found that human smugglers try to slip people into Canada using everything from all-terrain vehicles to cross-country skis, kayaks and helicopters.

While that report suggested stronger enforcement measures at the border over the past few years might partly explain the boost in arrests, there were also concerns about "a surge in human smuggling activity."

Those concerns are well-founded, the Harvard study suggests.

The entitlement to seek asylum has been "profoundly limited" by the government, Arbel added, resulting in desperate measures for those wishing to start new lives in Canada.

"Certainly Canada has a valid interest in protecting and regulating its borders in ways that ensure only legitimate refugees are entitled to refugee protection," she said.

"But Canada is also obligated to do that in ways that comply with their legal obligations under domestic and international law. These measures are denying individuals the opportunity to seek asylum before they've had a chance to tell their story, before they've had a chance to be heard."

The study comes as the U.S. and Canada attempt to build on cross-border co-operation by creating new integrated teams in areas such as intelligence and criminal investigations – part of a sweeping Canada-U.S. perimeter security pact.