Less than half the foreign nationals forced to leave Canada last year did so voluntarily and paid their own way home, according to data from the border services agency.
In 2017, there were 8,200 removals of failed refugee claimants, people who had outstayed their travel, work or student visa or were considered a risk to public safety.
While 3,639 of them voluntarily complied with their removal order, the others were forced to leave with escorts or had transportation costs paid by the government.
The data, provided to CBC News from the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), shows a similar pattern over the past six years.
Sharry Aiken, an immigration law expert at Queen’s University, said people subject to removal orders who don’t leave voluntarily don’t necessarily go underground or intentionally evade immigration authorities.
Many of them just don’t have the money to leave.
She said Canada could follow the lead of other countries, including several in Europe, that offer generous repatriation allowances.
“I think a program that supports individuals to leave and resettle with dignity in their home countries is appropriate, particularly when it comes to failed refugee claims,” she told CBC News.
CBSA tried a small pilot incentive program in 2012 to encourage alternatives to forced removals, but a subsequent audit found it did not lead to more timely, cost-effective removals.
Aiken said along with possible financial assistance to help people resettle back home, she said there should be more flexibility to allow people to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds.
“If the [immigration] minister is concerned with, and really shares the objective of wanting to be able to say that Canada’s immigration system has integrity, then attention to this back-end problem is equally important as the front end,” she said.
The federal government, facing an influx of illegal border crossers, has been working to allay concerns by stressing that only a fraction of asylum seekers are ultimately successful in their refugee claims.
In the first three-quarters of 2017, nearly half the 14,467 asylum-seekers entering Canada from the United States outside official border points were from Haiti, and of the claims processed by November, only 10 per cent were successful in gaining refugee status.
Liberal ministers, including Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, have been reaching out to officials, stakeholders and diaspora by social media and through visits to the U.S., sending a message that crossing into Canada is illegal, unsafe and not a “free ticket” to permanent residency.
Fewer than one per cent of the asylum seekers crossing into Canada illegally have a serious criminal background, according to a CBSA official who testified at a parliamentary committee last fall.
According to CBSA, removal costs vary based on the country and transportation used. The average cost of an escorted removal is around $15,000, while a non-escorted removal is $1,500.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the deportation system can be costly — and enforcement at times “cruel.”
She said unsuccessful refugee claimants should have more time to get their affairs in order, and have financial assistance to rebuild their lives in their country of origin. They don’t want to leave, and many face extreme hardship back home.
“Having more of an approach that works with people and responds to their legitimate needs could be much more effective than just using the harsh force of the law,” she said.
Persons who don’t have financial means can have transport costs paid by the government, but they must reimburse the amount in order to re-enter Canada.
Improving removals process
CBSA says it is working to improve the removals process.
“The CBSA remains committed to working with and engaging foreign governments to remove inadmissible foreign nationals in a timely and cost effective manner,” said spokesperson Jayden Robertson. “We are continuously reviewing ways to maximize the effectiveness of our removal programs while ensuring they are cost effective and timely.”
Last year, the agency modernized its website to allow people subject to removal to speak to a live agent about their case.