Monday June 19, 2017

Ahmed Hussen: From Somali refugee to Canada's immigration minister

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Ahmed Hussen as the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenships in January 2017.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Ahmed Hussen as the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenships in January 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Listen 24:17

Read Story Transcript

Ahmed Hussen meets a lot of people. 

As Canada's minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, it's just part of the job. 

But when he shakes hands and says hello to new Canadians, there's a sense of understanding that goes deeper than with most politicians.

Born in Somalia, Hussen escaped to Canada to flee the civil war. He was just 16-years-old when he arrived here alone. Twelve years later, he was the president of the Canadian Somali Congress. And six years after that, he graduated from law school.

His appointment to the prime minister's cabinet in January made headlines around the world, and his story gave hope to refugees who are seeking asylum in Canada.

Hussen moved into his new office just as the Trump administration launched its travel ban, which attempted to ban refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Hussen's native Somalia. Trump's immigration order was revised a few months later to remove Iraq from that list. 

CANADA-POLITICS/

Minister Ahmed Hussen moved into his new office just as the Trump administration launched its travel ban, which originally attempted to ban refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim nations. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Hussen believes other countries — including the U.S. — are entitled to enforce their own immigration policies when it comes to these issues.

Canada's immigration obligations

"We will continue to use immigration as … a great system for our increasing and growing our economy and contributing to our skills in Canada and our productivity," Hussen tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"But also making sure that we always have space for humanitarian obligations to the world, to make sure we … provide a home for those who seek sanctuary from war, from persecution, from terrorism," he says.

Since U.S. President Donald Trump took office, hundreds of asylum seekers have made the dangerous trek from the U.S. to Canada in fear of his crackdown on illegal immigrants and refugees. Quebec and Manitoba had the highest instances of border crossings.

However, Hussen says the influx of people from the U.S. began before Trump, having started during the Obama administration as a result of fluctuating migration patterns.

"We are susceptible to global migration patterns just like any other country in the world. What I can say is we have a very robust system that has the capacity to adjust and respond to those fluctuations," he says.

Review of the immigration system

The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) is struggling to keep up with the increasing number of asylum claims. As a result, Minister Hussen has ordered a review of the system in hopes that he can expedite the process.

"This third-party review will look at a comprehensive approach — not just more resources which the IRB is asking for — but what else can the IRB do to make it quicker and more efficient," he explains.

There have been calls for the federal government to scrap the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires people to apply for asylum in the first country where they arrive. But Hussen says the government's analysis "continues to show that the domestic U.S. asylum system is robust."

"We have absolutely no reason to suspend or change the Safe Third Country agreement. That agreement works really well for both countries," he says.

How his experience informs his work

'I don't think I would have achieved half of what I've been able to do in any other country.' - Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen

Hussen's own experiences of settling in Canada as a young refugee has informed his work as a minister, particularly regarding challenges and frustrations that people face with the immigration system.

"I used those experiences to then take a more aggressive approach to … put the client at the centre of everything that we do," says Hussen.

Despite Hussen's personal success in embracing Canadian society and integrating as a citizen, he believes his story is not unique.

"You'll hear a lot of newcomers who have made Canada their home, who are great Canadian citizens who have contributed so much to this country and still love Canada so much," he says.

"I don't think I would have achieved half of what I've been able to do in any other country."

Listen to their conversation at the top of the web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.