By Global and Mail |

The issue of asylum seekers who are crossing into Canada between border points has sparked fiery political debates this summer.

In special hearings of the House of Commons immigration committee last week, the opposition Conservatives accused the federal government of mismanaging the refugee file and driving up costs for provinces and cities such as Toronto and Montreal. The federal government says it is dealing with a “challenge, but it is not a crisis,” and that it is fulfilling its international obligations. Both sides accuse each other of using language of “fear and division.”

Beyond the war of words in Ottawa is the global context: A record number of people around the world are fleeing war, persecution and armed conflict. The vast majority of them are displaced internally, or leave for neighbouring countries.

Canada too has seen recent increases – though in the global context, this country has experienced far smaller inflows. Last year, Canada received less than 0.2 per cent of the overall refugee population in the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The majority of refugee claimants arrived this year and last through regular entry points, such as an airport. Since the start of 2017, however, an influx of people has come by land, crossing the border from the United States between official entry points.

Most of these crossings occurred in Quebec, with 1,179 arrivals in June. Although these numbers have subsided – in June they fell to a one-year low – since the start of last year more than 31,000 people have crossed into Canada this way. Their arrival corresponds with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose approach to refugees differs markedly from Canada’s. Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, refugee claimants who first arrive in the United States and then seek entry to Canada will likely be denied. A growing chorus of Canadians are calling for the suspension of the agreement, which they say would diminish the need to cross at unofficial border points.

This influx has caused concerns over costs. In July, the premiers of Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba jointly called on the federal government to review its policies on border crossings outside of regular ports of entry, “fully compensate” the provinces for impacts to services from the recent increase and “make the necessary investments” to ensure that hearings are adjudicated in a timely way.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government has formally requested $200-million from the federal government to cover the costs of resettling thousands of asylum seekers now in the province, who crossed between ports of entry.

Toronto estimates the direct costs to the city budget this year for housing refugee claimants in motels and college dorms, food and other support services at about $72-million.

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