This past week, television news provided images of asylum seekers walking across frigid, Canadian border crossings in Manitoba and Quebec. Incredibly, many of the people trudging through the snow are from African countries, such as Somalia and Sudan. Their journey most likely began with a flight from Africa to Brazil, followed by a dangerous ground passage through several South and Central American countries, as well as Mexico and — finally — the U.S. And they had to have been desperate for safety to risk their lives on such a perilous voyage.
Most of the newcomers planned to claim asylum in the U.S. But U.S. President Donald Trump issued an order in late January
, closing the border to anyone from seven predominantly Muslim countries. He also placed all refugee admissions on hold until at least the end of May. As a result, he has been challenged in American courts — the outcome of which remains unclear. More recently, the U.S. administration instructed police officers, along with immigration and customs officers, to round up people
who Trump calls “illegals” and deport them. The order allows this to be done without hearings or due process.
That’s the push for desperate people who are arriving in Canada. The pull is our emerging reputation as a country friendly to asylum seekers. After the U.S. refugee ban was announced in January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter
, “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith.” After all, Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen was born in Somalia and was once a refugee, himself — a fact that isn’t lost on asylum seekers.
I’ve been struck by the civility with which the newcomers have been treated by police officers and border officials. Take, for example, a guard on Manitoba’s Canadian-American border, who helped asylum seekers through the deep snow. “They are human beings too,” he told a television reporter. People in the small border towns of Emerson, Man. and Hemmingford, Que. have been friendly, too, although a local official in Emerson warned that the town isn’t equipped to handle hundreds of new arrivals. In contrast, another television interviewee said that while he’s in favour of “legal immigration,” he has no sympathy for the people arriving at remote border crossings. “Too bad, so sad,” he said, cynically.
Nevertheless, people in danger of persecution in their home countries are not illegals. They deserve a hearing, and if they’re indeed refugees, international law says that they must be protected.
We must begin to think in different ways about people forced from their homes by wars, violence and —increasingly — climate change. If we cannot build more compassionate politics and populations, then we’re in for a Hobbesian scenario: increasingly authoritarian governments claiming to protect us from what they see as ‘the hordes at the gate.’