OTTAWA — The United Nations refugee agency is keeping a careful eye on the situation at informal crossings along the Canada-U.S. border where dozens of people have been arriving in recent weeks in search of asylum.
But it's the perception of what's happening rather than the reality that troubles Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the agency's representative in Ottawa, who spent a day this week observing people making their way through one such crossing in Quebec.
The border crossings are orderly and officials are following all the appropriate laws, said Beuze, who described seeing compassion demonstrated by police and border guards — some of whom even gave asylum seekers additional clothing.
A family of asylum claimants cross the border into Canada from the United States, on Feb. 20, 2017 near Hemmingford, Que. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
"There's not really any concern on this side for the Canadian authorities to be able to provide the protection which is necessary to those people," Beuze said Thursday in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Nonetheless, there's a risk that a false public narrative could form around whether Canada has the capacity to deal with an influx of new refugees, he warned.
"The Canadian population may have some perception of what's happening in Canada which may not be matching the reality," Beuze said.
"Perception sometimes becomes the reality and what we will not want is that it increases the fatigue of people, the sense they are shouldering the misery of the world."
Beuze said of the 50 to 70 people he observed on Tuesday, many were Turks, Yemenis or Syrians; most had legal status in the U.S.; and the group included single men and women as well as women travelling alone with children.
"We don't really react and change laws based on perhaps, perhaps there may be something cooking. You cannot change legal frameworks based on that."
Most were young, well-educated and clearly prepared for the journey, carrying cash and the necessary documents to try and make the case for asylum in Canada.
Opposition Conservatives have characterized what's happening as people running across farmers' fields illegally, a situation that's dangerous for them and for Canada, and are calling for an increase in border enforcement to stop it.
From what he's witnessed so far, Beuze said, the situation is calm and organized, with both the asylum seekers and the police waiting on the Canadian side well in control of the situation.
While more support might be needed at the entry points for the immediate needs of new arrivals, he said he believes it's operating as it should.
While there are stories circulating about people paying as much as $5,000 for smugglers to bring them to the border points, others are just looking up the routes on the Internet, Beuze said.
'It is a lot about perception'
Their flights to Canada are largely pre-emptive, he added, rooted in a fear their asylum claims will not receive fair consideration from U.S. officials.
"It is a lot about perception, what they hear in the domain in the U.S. — the negative rhetoric vis-a-vis migrants, vis-a-vis refugees, a lot mentioned being Muslim," he said.
"And on the other side, the positive rhetoric here about Canada being a welcoming country."
But the border crossers' perception that they won't get a fair shake in the U.S. does not mean Canada should suspend the agreement currently in place with the U.S. that governs asylum claims, he added.
The so-called safe third country agreement prohibits those entering Canada from the U.S. at an official land border, via train or in certain circumstances at an airport from filing a claim for asylum here on the grounds they should have made the claim in the U.S.
Critics say the upheaval in the U.S. immigration system, a result of President Donald Trump's recent presidential orders, means that country can no longer be considered safe.
A family of asylum claimants huddle as they are arrested after crossing the border into Canada from the United States on Feb. 20, 2017 near Hemmingford, Que. A growing number of people have been walking across the border into Canada to claim refugee status. (Photo: Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)
The federal Liberal government says the American asylum process remains untouched by any of those orders and so too will the agreement.
There's not enough evidence either way, said Beuze.
"We don't really react and change laws based on perhaps, perhaps there may be something cooking," he said. "You cannot change legal frameworks based on that."
Beuze said he will continue to visit unofficial entry points in the coming weeks to monitor and is also working with non-governmental organizations to see if there is a way to provide more support to communities along those points.
On Thursday, the premier of Manitoba announced the opening of 14 new emergency shelter spaces to house refugee claimants in Manitoba and also moving paramedics to the border to help local emergency crews deal with people who make the frigid walk into Canada.
Also on HuffPost