Municipalities face serious issues in trying to help refugees, such as housing, jobs, health care, and policing protocols.
Winnipeggers gathered earlier this month to encourage Mayor Brian Bowman to make Winnipeg a sanctuary city for undocumented migrants. (JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The world has a massive problem on its hands. The numbers of displaced people fleeing persecution, conflict and genocide are staggering. The UN Refugee Agency estimates “an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights.”
Where can these asylum seekers find safety in an increasingly unsafe world? Where can they access their basic rights of education, health care, employment and freedom of movement?
Initially, we assumed that sheltered refuge would be found in North America. To that end, Canada signed the Safe Third Country Agreement in 2002 with the U.S. The accord was designed to enhance the efficiency of the refugee process with a requirement that a refugee claimant (with some exceptions) request protection in the first country in which they arrive, not both.
What could possibly go wrong? Both countries were deemed to “respect human rights and offer a high degree of protection for asylum seekers.”
But increasingly, the assumption of the U.S. as a safe harbour is at risk. Donald Trump has exacerbated the global situation with rumours of accelerated deportations along with threats to cut federal funding to approximately 400 American cities and counties that provide sanctuary to illegal immigrants. The cuts could amount to “$2.27 billion in annual funds for the nation’s 10 largest cities” and affect housing, health, education and infrastructure.
Whether the numbers crossing the undefended portions of our joint border are a trickle or a flood remain to be seen. Competing visions of the future are colliding in our consciousness, in part because of politics and in part because of real confusion. The government, which is dealing with an unprecedented situation, is taking time to assess the severity of the situation.
But are city services enough? The Mayor of Fredericton recently noted that because provinces have responsibility for education and health, it may be more appropriate for New Brunswick to be designated as a sanctuary province. Similarly, a project at the Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement is studying the idea of provincial sanctuary as it researches the availability of labour markets for illegal migrants while examining municipal programs that could be “scaled” up to the provincial level.
Secondly, affordable housing remains a pressing issue for many cities, not to mention the challenge of homelessness. Can we build new units? If so, how quickly and which level of government provides the funds?
Successful sanctuaries, whether at the municipal or provincial level will require clarity of laws, as well as co-ordinated leadership among officials at all levels. To avoid arguments, and possible confrontations, citizens, too, must receive good communication and education. None of this is easy. Patience, rather than heated rhetoric, will be a virtue. But meanwhile, there are real life problems, one which I witnessed this week in an Ottawa public health clinic.
Instead of giving a queue number as he did to the other patients who rushed in with their health cards, the technician in charge asked a particular patient for his immigration papers. People began to look up from their iPhones. The patient handed over his papers without hesitation. The technician examined them and then asked for the patient’s passport. At this point, the waiting room was silent with collective sympathy for the obviously sick patient. After the technician was satisfied with the information, the patient was asked for a credit card. Luckily, one was produced.
In this case, the situation was resolved but not without concern on the part of everyone in the waiting room. It was an uncomfortable moment on many levels. How we provide sanctuary will no doubt produce more discomfort in the future.
Asylum seekers are not of course seeking comfort. They are seeking safety and sanctuary. All we have to do is figure out how to provide it.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.