The newly-formed World Refugee Council may visit Manitoba to look at the surge in refugee claimants crossing into Canada on foot and what can and should be done about it.
Its co-chairman, Lloyd Axworthy, told a lunchtime crowd at the Laurier Club Tuesday that the global organization will likely be coming to Winnipeg to look at issues surrounding the border crossing at Emerson, Man.
More than 500 asylum seekers have crossed into Manitoba this year from the U.S., some risking life and limb in freezing temperatures to make a refugee claim in Canada. Critics blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for encouraging migrants in January when he Tweeted "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada".
Axworthy told the Liberal party supporters that the surge in refugee claimants crossing into Manitoba has more to do with the election of President Donald Trump and Canada's hands being tied by the Safe Third Country Agreement, signed after the terror attacks of 9-11. In 2004, the U.S. and Canada each declared the other country safe for refugees and established the general principle that refugee claimants should make their claim in the first of these countries that they reach.
"That was predicated on the United States having a very clear and open immigration system," Axworthy told the gathering at the Fort Garry Hotel.
That all changed when Trump was elected and issued an executive order banning all travel from seven mainly Muslim countries — including Syrian refugees. "Even though it was stopped by the courts there were still restrictions on travel," he said. "So many people who came to the U.S. were expecting to be able to apply to be refugees and all of a sudden they learn their chances are virtually nil — and so what do they do?"
They headed north to Canada with its Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and where international treaties and human rights are still respected.
Axworthy said he can understand Ottawa's "hesitancy" in renegotiating the Safe Third Country Agreement with a U.S. government "which is no longer predictable... Negotiating on a fairly sane, reasonable basis is probably not in the cards right now."
Axworthy said the World Refugee Council that he's heading is looking for solutions to the global refugee crisis — from helping to stabilize countries to creating a safe place for those forced to leave. Right now there are 20 million refugees — the worst crisis since the Second World War. That number is expected to double in the next 20 years with climate change creating more refugees, he said.
The U.S. used to be a beacon of hope and human rights, he said, lamenting that Trump's first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia — a notorious human rights abuser.
Canada is setting an example right now that gives people around the world hope, said Axworthy, who spent much of the last two years in Germany learning from its refugee experience. He applauded the Trudeau government for welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada and its willingness to address global humanitarian issues.
"We've become — remarkably so — an exceptional nation ... not because of the strength of our military or our economic power but simply because we continue to offer fundamental roots of liberalism."
This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press