CBC hosts fiery town hall on asylum seekers in Canada

Dozens of refugees and community leaders discussed issues around the increase in asylum seekers crossing into Canada at a public forum hosted by CBC Manitoba.

Dozens of refugees and community leaders discuss issues around increase of asylum seekers crossing border

Abdi Ahmed of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg speaks with CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa at the CBC Asks town hall. (CBC)

Ali Saeed sits in a crowded atrium at the RBC Convention Centre Wednesday night, nodding his head up and down, agreeing with one of the speakers at a CBC-hosted town hall on the increase in asylum seekers crossing into Canada and the dollars and sense of accepting more refugees.

Saeed, a refugee himself over 30 years ago when he came to Canada from Ethiopia, is listening to another refugee talk about the fears of being a refugee.

They're fears Saeed knows all too well.

"First of all, nobody wants to be a refugee. We have to make it clear, we have a reason why we're fleeing from our own motherland, why we're fleeing from own country," Saeed said.

"Do you think anybody wants to have luxury life by sacrificing their feet and the fingers, their kidneys removed by knife to help them be sold? No. Nobody wants to experience that kind of nightmares."
Ali Saeed speaks to the attendees about the contributions refugees make to Canada once they are settled. (CBC)

Saeed was one of many from the audience that joined the conversation, part of a series called CBC Asks hosted by CBC Manitoba.

The conversation, at moments fiery, brought together speakers and community members from every perspective — refugees, lawyers and people living in the communities closest to the border, witnessing first-hand the influx in refugees.

Questions focused on whether everyone coming into Canada is indeed a refugee, what people's fears are with the increase in refugees and whether there's a price for compassion.

Immigration lawyer Kenneth Zaifman said not every individual skipping customs stations and crossing into Canada is fleeing from a dire situation. It's not true to say that fear for their lives is always their biggest concern, he said.

He also said for periods of time, countries like Somalia wouldn't issue travel documents, so even if refugees were deported, it wouldn't be guaranteed they would be sent back to the regions they fled.
Approximately 80 people sat in on the public discussion Wednesday night. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

At some point Canadians are going to have to face and deal with uncomfortable truths around immigration and refugees, Zaifman said.

"We want to ensure that the refugee protection and selection process for Canada remains intact and isn't eroded by — whether it's people's fears or apprehensions or significant numbers of people coming across the border," said Zaifman. 

Part of the truth is knowing and following the proper process and understanding that not everyone coming into Canada is considered a refugee, he said.

"They're coming for different reasons. They're making a refugee claim but at the essence of it, they're either not from a traditional refugee-producing country and they've been in the U.S. for a significant period of time and so we give them due process, but we have to recognize that they don't meet the definition of a refugee and it doesn't matter how you dress it up," said Zaifman.

Bashir Khan, another immigration lawyer in Winnipeg, said it's important for people to have these discussions and educate themselves on the issues.

He took aim at references to illegal border crossings, arguing that under the Geneva Conventions, as long as individuals are crossing as legitimate refugees, bypassing border stations to come into Canada isn't illegal.
CBC radio host Ismaila Alfa holds the microphone for Bashir Khan, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer. Bashir said individuals crossing into Canada as legitimate refugees are not breaking the law. (CBC)

"Refugee claimants are not crossing illegally. Nowhere does it say in Canadian law that they are. That's just a loaded term trying to imply illegality where none exists," Khan said.

Khan also said the system doesn't end up letting every claimant in and that it is doing its job of screening refugees. 

Other people in the public forum shared personal stories of working with refugees, seeing refugees and helping them as they cross into their border towns.

There were also those who spoke loudly about fears that the province and country don't have enough resources and services to help everyone who wants to come here.

Saeed said he's just really happy that people are having the discussion.

"Some people are very upset about the discussion. Some people of them are hot, some of them are calm. This is what we want. It's very important — the discussion."