Panelists and guests gathered at the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility on Thursday night to discuss and debate Canada’s refugee policy.

Co-sponsored by the R.F. Harney Program in Ethnic, Immigration and Pluralism Studies and the Munk School of Global Affairs, the well-attended event was headlined by panelists Jeff Crisp, Head of Policy Development and Evaluation Service of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), Zachary Lomo, former director of Uganda’s Refugee Law Project, and Audrey Macklin, a U of T law professor.

To set the stage for discussion, moderator Michael Ignatieff explained that the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention is part of a structure to stop injustices and provide international security to those who have escaped persecution or danger. He went on to explain that Canada has had its share of glorious and also horrific moments when it comes to opening its doors to refugees.

After Ignatieff’s remarks, the panelists agreed that signatories to the Refugee Convention should help more by giving asylum-seekers from all walks of life an equal chance to survive. They also concluded that a refugee’s country of origin or nature of arrival gives rise to disparities during claims assessment.

“Many countries in the global south carry a heavier burden of … refugees with fewer resources,” said Lomo, who also advocated for the free movement of refugees. Macklin then went on to explain that Canadian immigration is constantly in flux, especially with impending legislation that authorizes the government to designate certain groups of asylum-seekers.

“Designated asylum-seekers will be subject to automatic, unreviewable detention for a year, and those accepted as refugees will be prohibited from sponsoring family members for five years. They will be in limbo for five years,” Macklin said.

Refugees arriving by boat, she told her co-panelists, trigger people’s sense of moral panic, causing them to usually be denied entry to the country like the asylum-seekers who rode the 1914 Komagata Maru and the 2010 Sun Sea boat.

“It is not a crime to be a refugee,” Macklin said. “Their mode of arrival should not weaken their claim.”

Crisp, however, opposed Macklin by saying that the “moral panic … did not happen in the UK in the same way it did in Canada.”

“In the late 1990s, the United Kingdom received 110,000 applications a year. There were lots of huffs and puffs in the press, but ultimately, the UK went along with it and the number of applications declined in time,” he said.

“Perhaps this is because Brits are better people,” Crisp added jokingly.