Along with the United States, Australia and New Zealand, Canada has long been an anomaly as a country with a national identity centering on immigration. This is changing. According to recent polls, positive attitudes toward immigrants are at their lowest levels since polling started in the 1970s.

Since the Second World War, North American and European countries have used immigration to smooth out demographic booms and busts, fill labour shortages and compete for global talent. For many Western countries, managed migration fueled prosperity, and communities of new arrivals quickly transitioned from outsiders to community leaders.

Canada’s refugee system is guided by the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, a response to the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s. Postwar Europe faced a new crisis: a combination of postwar displacement and dislocation caused by the dawn of the Cold War. Before then, Canada had traditionally taken in large numbers of refugees – Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, Irish fleeing the Famine, and Doukhobors and Mennonites fleeing religious persecution – yet they were almost always Christian, European and white, often with explicit exclusions for those who were different. There were dark moments: Canada turned away boatloads of Jews escaping Nazi repression and, before that, refused or limited entry to many based on race, religion and national origin.

Over time Canada eliminated those race-based elements. To become a refugee in Canada today you must fear persecution based on your race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group as outlined in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Coming from a country enduring human rights abuses or war makes you a refugee only if you, personally, can show you are at risk if your return.

Everyone has the right to apply for refugee status from within Canada. Nevertheless, the number seeking asylum has remained stable and low, ranging between 10,000 and 45,000 annually since the Immigration and Refugee Board was created in 1989. Boats filled with refugees do sometimes appear on our shores, rousing fears of a massive influx, but the reality is of a relatively predictable number of refugees crossing at recognized points of entry. Many are granted asylum, but rates vary. Just under 50 per cent were accepted in 2003, while 2017 saw an acceptance rate close to 70 per cent. In the first six months of 2018 the acceptance rate fell back to 56 per cent.

The limited number of asylum seekers is partly due to our unfriendly geography, with cold oceans on three sides and the United States, a country even more attractive to refugees and immigrants than Canada, to the south. Add to that the fact that citizens of countries likely to generate credible refugee claims usually need visas to travel to Canada, visas that are hard to get and checked by airlines prior to boarding. Moreover, those who enter Canada at a legal overland port of entry are covered by the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. The agreement requires that you claim refugee status in the first country you enter – either Canada or the United States – unless you have family members in Canada, are an unaccompanied minor or have been charged with or convicted of a crime carrying the death penalty.

The term refugee is a legal construct. A man who fled gang violence in El Salvador may not be a refugee if he was not personally targeted because of his race, religion, nationality or political affiliation. A Syrian woman may have seen war destroy her business but, if the damage was done when her neighbourhood became a battleground and not because she was personally targeted, she has no clear claim to refugee status. It is necessarily an intrusive process that requires telling and retelling one’s worst and most intimate moments to strangers. The traditional refugee paradigm presents the refugee as the perfect victim – vulnerable, without agency and without options. The reality is quite different. Having the resources to escape a modern conflict usually involves some combination of skill, privilege and money.

The new United Nations compact seeks to recognize this new reality. Our refugee system was born in the context of the Second World War, not the Syrian civil war. Refugees today are escaping crackdowns, religious violence at the hands of their own family, localized genocides and wars within the boundaries of one state, often between multiple nonstate actors with widely different levels of organization. The original system, developed by overwhelmingly male politicians from a limited number of countries, did not take into account terrorist organizations, rape as a tool of war or persecution based on sexual orientation, even though those were all a part of World War II. The original policy was designed to deal with large population displacements, internment camps and organized killing bureaucracies, while more recent conflicts have involved a more varied catalogue of horrors.

In 2017, reports of migrants crossing the border through fields, streams and forests, often in the dead of winter, started appearing in Canadian media. Emerging from blizzards without winter clothes, these migrants took advantage of a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement by avoiding formal ports of entry, and turned themselves in to police. Human smugglers, always looking for new opportunities to turn misery into profit, used WhatsApp and other social media tools to spread information about this loophole in countries where flight to Canada was an appealing option.

As a result, echoing fears over Syrian and other refugees entering Europe and the “Build the Wall” rhetoric coming from U.S. President Donald Trump, Canada has experienced a populist outcry over illegal entrants and jobs lost by Canadians. In fact, despite extensive media coverage and a proliferation of online memes, the increase was not dramatic by Canadian or international standards, with numbers similar to those seen before the Safe Third Country Agreement was signed. The total of 47,000 claims made in 2018 was not far from the 44,000 made in 2001.

By way of contrast, in 2015, at the height of the Syrian crisis, 1.1 million asylum seekers entered Germany, a number that dropped to just under 200,000 new cases in 2018. Canada welcomes significantly fewer refugees per capita than Sweden, where 600,000 migrants were added over just five years to a population of ten million. Canada is welcoming more refugees than forecast, but not by a lot.

Asylum seekers and refugee claimants are not illegal immigrants. They are not breaking any law. Illegal immigration does happen, but it is not the same thing. You can only become a refugee by getting the Canadian government to define you as one, through a legal process. You are also only a refugee if you are out of your country and, according to the convention, you claim status in the country of asylum or its embassy. Illegal immigrants arrive and disappear, avoiding the law at all costs.

There’s a misconception that refugee processing works like the immigration queue at an airport. Instead, the queue for refugees works just like an emergency room – you are not stealing someone’s appointment if you turn up with a heart attack. If you have a splinter, you’ll have to wait longer to be seen. Your case will be judged based on need, not on when you arrived or whether you arrived by ambulance or on foot.

None of this is an endorsement of the current system. Migrants should not cross the border away from formal entry points, for their safety and that of the country. The best solution, according to former Deputy Minister of Immigration Neal Yates, is to speed up the processing of claims and the management of cases.

The slow speed of processing is an incentive to making claims that have only a small chance of being accepted. Slow processing means you can stay in Canada for years, waiting for your case to be heard or for deportation to take place. The expense and risk of getting to Canada makes sense if you can stay for that long, but not if the wait is only months or weeks. If federal politicians were serious about immigration reform, they would embrace Yates’s recommendations.

The federal Conservatives have opted for populism over good policy, calling for crackdowns. Initially the governing Liberals supported the current system, with Justin Trudeau saying in 2017, “To those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you.” More recently, however, the Liberals are raising concerns about “asylum shopping.” While this issue alone isn’t necessarily enough to ring alarm bells, it is not a one-off issue. The CAQ won in Quebec with promises of lowering immigration. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has cut legal aid for refugees and immigrants. Perhaps most worrisome is the moral outrage expressed by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer over the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

The Compact, a benign nonbinding document updating the international legal migration regime, proposed concrete improvements to the system. Despite the Compact’s explicit reinforcement of national sovereignty, Scheer called on Canada not to sign, on the grounds that the Compact would cede control of our immigration system to UN foreign bureaucrats.

Scheer joined politicians around the world using the same false message. Italy, the United States, Australia, Austria and some eastern European countries refused to sign the Compact. Canadian far-right and other protest groups, such as the Yellow Vest Canada movement, spread conspiracy myths, portraying the UN as a malevolent force controlled by globalists, the “deep state” and Jewish American-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, cheating people out of what they deserve. There is nothing new here: the same accusations were made a century ago against the League of Nations.

Memes abound linking the flow of irregular migrants and the Compact as proof that there is a conspiracy against “regular Canadians” and a dark force in control of our government. The Conservatives’ recent embrace of anti-immigration rhetoric gives credibility to these claims. Perhaps surprisingly, the Liberals’ 2019 budget took the next step. Fearing electoral losses in the face of the SNC-Lavallin scandal and looking to shore up support in Quebec, Prime Minister Trudeau has done an about-face, removing the right of refugee claimants who have sought asylum elsewhere to have a hearing in Canada.

These flash points illustrate the dangers we face. Mixed in with the conspiracy theories, there is much legitimate criticism and debate. People supporting reasonable ideas, such as new pipeline construction, are exposed to misinformation campaigns almost perfectly mirroring nationalist propaganda from the early 20th century. At that time industrialization was redefining work and society. We are at another moment of global recalibration based on technological and political disruption. Advances in artificial intelligence are shifting the ground under all of us, disturbing the long-established consensus on many policies, including immigration.

The political expression of these fears is becoming an international phenomenon, a loose nationalist alignment stretching from Steve Bannon to Marine Le Pen to Ontario Proud to Nigel Farage. Disseminated globally and without intermediaries through social media, falsehoods are spread and, stripped of their toxic context, implanted in mainstream discussions around economic development and job creation. From there, the lies enter the discourse of mainstream political parties and, finally, drive policy responses. From Russian bots to Yellow Vests to the Conservatives to Justin Trudeau.

Ironically given their obsession with identity and difference, nationalist movements have always had many things in common. Suspicion of international cooperation and a rejection of the consensus on immigration are constants. Nationalism has always offered simple solutions to complex problems. When workers feel they are not getting what they deserve, when they are worried about their future and that of their children, many will look for and embrace easy explanations.

Canada’s slide away from an evidence-based immigration regime may appeal to such voters, but neither party is addressing the real issue. The proposed amendments will do little to stem the flow at the border. One official, speaking to the National Post, said the proportion of irregular entrants who came to the United States on a temporary visa and headed straight for the border was between 60 and 70 per cent. The Liberals’ proposed changes bar people who claimed refugee status in any country with which Canada has signed an agreement. This has been justified as a restrictive clause that only covers members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence organization – Canada, the United States, the U.K., Australia and New Zealand – but future governments could sign such agreements with any country. Theoretically, if a gay Bruneian, coming from a country that just made homosexuality punishable by death, was first denied refugee status in country X where homosexuality is illegal, that person could then be denied a hearing in Canada if the Canadian government had signed an agreement with country X. The Liberal plan focuses on stopping people, including legitimate refugees, from entering the country.

Canada’s parties had long agreed that managed immigration is central to Canada’s success. Refugee systems mitigate the disruptions caused by migration and allow us to simultaneously address labour market challenges while protecting the vulnerable. We can leverage the appeal of our welcoming society to find people who have already shown they have the tenacity, resiliency and creativity to survive the unimaginable and to make it to our borders. Yes, we have to make sure the benefits of immigration are understood and the inevitable social tensions it creates are mitigated. But that does not mean we need to give in to narrow fears fueled by nationalism.

Canada has plentiful resources, secure borders, excellent internal security and high levels of education. What we don’t have is people. The conversation in 2019 should revolve around that need, and how to satisfy it without compromising Canadian values. With an election coming in October, we will soon see how the country’s leaders rise to this challenge.