Trudeau takes 'sharp turn' away from 'refugees welcome'

Image source, AFP

Canada has made a name for itself around the world as a safe haven for refugees. But recent changes to its laws may make the country seem far less friendly, refugee advocates and legal critics warn.

The Liberal government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, says it intends to change the law to make it harder for refugees to go "asylum shopping".

But legal experts and refugee advocates warn these changes could flout domestic and international law, and ruin Canada's reputation as a defender of refugees.

"I think that the Liberal government has really taken a sharp turn," says law professor and refugee lawyer Warda Shazadi Meighen.

"Canada was really an outlier in the last five years as a country upholding refugee rights in the face of populism... and this will really chip away at that."

What will the new law do?

The law was introduced as part of the government's omnibus budget bill last week.

It would make ineligible those asylum seekers at the border who have already made a claim in another country that has an immigration information-sharing agreement with Canada.

These countries include the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

They would also not be entitled to an oral appeal by an independent tribunal or a court. They would still be subject to a pre-removal risk assessment to determine if they will likely be executed or tortured if they are deported to their home country.

Border Security Minister Bill Blair says the law is intended to curb "asylum shopping".

Video caption,

Hundreds of migrants are illegally crossing the US border into Canada each day

'Refugees welcome'?

Since Justin Trudeau's election in 2014, the country has earned an international reputation for being welcoming to refugees at a time when many other countries were cracking down on their borders.

After US President Donald Trump announced a ban on entry to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries, Mr Trudeau tweeted that "Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith".

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This perception that Canada will open its arms to all refugees, coupled with increasingly restrictive immigration policies in the US, has led to an influx of claims made at the Canada-US border.

More than 40,000 asylum seekers have crossed into Canada at the US border since Trump was elected.

Cities along the border have struggled with providing services to the thousands who are waiting for their claims to be heard - in Montreal, the Olympic stadium was converted into temporary housing.

The issue has inspired protests and clashes with local leaders, and Ms Meighen believes the government has pushed for changes to refugee policy to help curry favour ahead of the autumn election.

"It's a lot about optics really," she says.

So what next?

Several refugee lawyers and advocates have decried the new laws, which were introduced quietly in a budget bill and will almost certainly come into force.

Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the Canadian civil-liberties association and the Canadian Council for Refugees wrote a joint letter to the prime minister urging the government to rescind the new law.

Refugee lawyer and law professor Jamie Liew says Canada should not be allowing the US - which does not accept refugee claims based on domestic violence or gender identity, unlike Canada - to make decisions that affect domestic refugee claims.

"We shouldn't be relying on the decision of other country - Canada shouldn't be delegating that," she says.

Ms Meighan says there will almost certainly be legal challenges, based on Canada's 1985 Supreme Court ruling that asylum seekers on Canadian soil were entitled to a full oral hearing before deportation.

If the new law denies refugee claimants an oral hearing, she believes it will likely be overturned. But what will be forever changed is Canada's reputation on the international stage, she says.

"I'm not sure if at the end of the road there will be much change, but it does change Canada's posturing," she says.