Opinion Column

Are asylum seekers or politicians pretenders?

Shannon Gormley

A mother and child from Turkey wait to be put into a police vehicle by the RCMP after they crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Canada, February 23, 2017 in Hemmingford, Quebec. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A mother and child from Turkey wait to be put into a police vehicle by the RCMP after they crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Canada, February 23, 2017 in Hemmingford, Quebec. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A third-rate reality TV participant, who brags about Skype-calling female colleagues in his underwear, may well be an unserious person, but as he is also preferred over most other Conservative leadership contenders, we must at least pretend to take Kevin O'Leary seriously when he says, "Canada can't afford to sit back and watch thousands of people walk right into our country without any documentation pretending to be refugees."

We might start by pretending asylum seekers can simultaneously exploit a process, yet not go through it. Simple logic says it's one or the other: only by proceeding to claim asylum can one pretend to require it.

Logic might also undermine another common fantasy we should try to indulge: That we can legitimately say a claim is without merit before the system designed to determine exactly this -- the very system that we claim to defend -- has had an opportunity to do so.

But even if we admitted asylum claimants indeed attempt to claim asylum and the asylum-claim process should indeed process asylum claims, we could still pretend the motive behind an asylum claim is revealed by its outcome. We would accomplish this feat of imagination by fantasizing that the perfect synonym for "failure" is "fraud."

Of course, if this were true, everyone who applied unsuccessfully for a job, a mortgage, or credit card might feel not only disappointed, but guilty, and we wouldn't call them unlucky, misguided or incorrect, but imposters, liars and scoundrels.

We'd also have to say all sorts of other mad little things: that criteria used to assess claims are perfectly fair; that claimants know perfectly well whether or not their circumstances fit the criteria even before making their claims; and that merely by breaking border regulations, asylum seekers make it perfectly clear that they have no legitimate need for asylum.

This is a strange world of make-believe. But let's entertain the dangerous fiction that failing to obtain something is as morally reprehensible as deliberately conspiring to obtain something under false pretences.

If we're to convincingly act as if we believe the moral character of asylum seekers can be judged solely by whether or not we give them asylum, we must not only pretend to expect universal fairness from and knowledge about the individual processes used to determine whether individual people fit the bill, but also pretend that the concept of asylum itself isn't subject to rational moral debate by even asylum experts.

Which, in fact, it is. When states hammered out the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees a few generations ago, asylum was meant to protect people fleeing, say, genocidal fascists with large collections of gas chambers at the ready. It didn't spare a thought for anyone trying to outrun, say, a category-5 hurricane.

But some legal experts believe that people have the right to flee across borders even if danger isn't someone who doesn't like the look of someone else's skin, politics or God.

Perhaps they're right. Perhaps not. Either way, if experts fail to agree on what a refugee is, then the morality of self-described refugees shouldn't be impugned for failing. If asylum seekers genuinely feel at risk, seeking safety isn't a sham. It may just be debatable.

Even in our wildest, stupidest dreams, then, we can't honestly believe the asylum seeker is likely to be a pretender with a persecution complex. That distinction belongs to the man who declares refugees are coming to take his job, his culture or his life.

Shannon Gormley is an Ottawa Citizen global affairs columnist and freelance journalist.