A record number of Canada-bound visitors were turned away at airports overseas on the advice of Canadian border officials last year, the Star has learned.
According to evidence submitted in a court case against the Canada Border Services Agency, in 2018 alone, 7,208 travellers were “off-loaded” by commercial airliners on the recommendation of its overseas agents because they were “improperly documented” — even though many were from countries where visas are not required. This compared to just 2,873 the year before and 2,769 in 2016.
Last year, 1,860 of the rejected passengers were from Romania, followed by Mexico (1,767) and India (1,080), with Hungary (275) and Iran (164) rounding up the top five source countries. Romanians, Mexicans and Hungarians don’t need visas to visit Canada.
Since 2012, border enforcement officials have adopted new guidelines when making recommendations to commercial airlines to intercept foreign nationals from visa-exempt countries whom they have reason to believe will remain in Canada on a permanent basis or intend to work and study in the country without proper visas.
“The (guidelines were) drafted as a result of an increase in irregular migration in 2011 and 2012. While there were no regulatory changes, increased irregular migration called for additional guidance related to document screening,” border services agency spokesperson Judith Gadbois-St-Cyr said in response to questions from the Star.
“The agency constantly adjusts its processes and operations when required in order to fulfil its mandate of providing integrated border services that support national security and public safety priorities and facilitate the free flow of persons and goods, including animals and plants, that meet all requirements.”
Although liaison officers deployed overseas by the border agency are limited to providing advice, allowing the transporter to make the final call, airlines are prohibited from carrying a passenger to Canada lacking the proper documents.
The agency currently has 51 liaison officers overseas who are on the front line of its operation abroad, “pushing the border outward to manage risks and threats at the earliest and farthest possible point from the Canadian border,” said Gadbois-St-Cyr.
Their job, she said, is to work with airlines and local border agencies to protect the integrity of Canada’s immigration system and security through information gathering and collaboration.
Airlines found to have flown an improperly documented foreign national to Canada can be fined up to $3,200 per passenger and are liable for additional removal and medical costs. But airlines that bring in visa-exempt travellers aren’t subject to the fines.
Air carriers that have agreements with the border agency may have their “administration fees” reduced based on whether they comply with the rules set out in their respective deals. As of June, 56 commercial airlines have such agreements with Ottawa.
Over the last five years, the administration fees assessed by the border agency against commercial airlines for carrying improperly documented passengers exceeded $3 million.
The data on rejected air passengers was part of submissions filed by the border agency in a court challenge by advocate Gabor Lukacs, founder of Air Passenger Rights, who has been critical of the agency’s practice, arguing it offers no internal review or redress process for its “recommendation,” which is not a legally binding order and hence not reviewable by the court.
With the consent of three Roma Hungarian travellers who were stopped from boarding their respective Canada-bound flights, Lukacs has asked the Federal Court to order the agency to release the individuals’ records, alleging they were victims of racial profiling by border officials. The case is still before the court.
“There is a big difference between countries that are visa-exempt and those that are not. For visitors from visa-exempt countries, the Federal Court has held that decisions (to deny entry) can be made only at port-of-entry examination, when the passengers present themselves at border crossings or a Canadian airport,” Lukacs told the Star in an interview.
“Canada Border Services Agency is lumping together travellers suspected of fraud with those who are off-loaded based on its belief that they may make a refugee claim here. The two are not the same.”
In 2012, with the launch of the agency’s guidelines, a total of 5,440 Canada-bound air travellers were stopped from boarding flights. Since then, the annual number of rejected travellers continued to decline, reaching 2,286 in 2015 when Ottawa introduced the Electronic Travel Authorization program to pre-screen travellers from visa-exempt countries. Any foreign nationals flying to or transiting through Canada must present a valid pre-authorization or visa (for passengers from countries requiring visas).
Calling the border agency’s practice a “Kafkaesque operation,” Osgoode Hall Law School professor Sean Rehaag accused the Canadian government of running in the shadows in airports abroad, leaving passengers clueless as to why they are not being allowed on a plane.
“If the passenger complains to the airline, the airline says that it’s not their decision, they’re just following a recommendation from the government,” said Rehaag, who’s also the incoming director of York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies.
“If the passenger complains to the government and asks where the government gets lawful authority to deny them passage, the government says it’s the airline’s decision as to (whether or not to) provide passage. So the passengers can’t get on the plane and no one takes responsibility.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung