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Global refugee numbers reach new high, U.S. and Canada take in record numbers

Last Updated Jun 19, 2018 at 7:20 pm EDT

A family, claiming to be from Columbia, is arrested by RCMP officers as they cross the border into Canada from the United States as asylum seekers on April 18, 2018 near Champlain, NY. A new report from the United Nations Refugee Agency shows 2017 broke global records for displaced persons and saw Canada become the ninth largest recipient of asylum seekers in the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees annual Global Trends report was released this morning and shows 68.5 million people fled their home countries due to wars, violence and persecution in 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

OTTAWA – On a day when newly released data showcased in tangible numbers the stark realities of the growing global refugee crisis, the United States — long considered a haven for the oppressed — doubled down on anti-migrant rhetoric while Canada struck a decidedly cautious tone.

The annual Global Trends report from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was released Tuesday, showing the worldwide total number of displaced people reached a record 68.5 million last year, due to global wars, violence and persecution.

In 2017 alone, more than 16 million people were newly displaced.

The statistics also show Canada became the ninth-largest recipient of asylum seekers, more than doubling the number of claims in a single year at 47,800.

And for the first time in five years, the United States became the largest recipient of new asylum applications with more than 330,000 claims lodged in 2017 — a 27 per cent jump from the year before.

But U.S. President Donald Trump made it clear Tuesday that asylum seekers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are not welcome in America.

In a speech Tuesday, Trump accused many of these migrants of being child and human smugglers who try to “game the system,” invoking references to the notorious international criminal gang MS-13 attacking children with knives, not guns, “because it’s much more painful.”

“And we’re allowing these people into our country? Not with me. We’re taking them out by the thousands,” Trump said.

The Trump administration has come under fire for its so-called zero-tolerance policy, in which asylum seekers who cross illegally into the U.S. are charged with federal crimes and separated from their children. The children are being detained in guarded, fenced enclosures, prompting widespread condemnation and protest.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been called upon to lend his voice to the chorus of condemnation, but so far Trudeau has demurred.

On Monday he would only say he would not “play politics” on the issue, and he did not attend question period in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale largely repeated comments made Monday, in which they said they found the images of children being torn from the arms of their parents and kept in cage-like detention areas “troubling.”

Transport Minister Marc Garneau went a step further, saying the situation involving child migrants in the U.S. is “simply unacceptable.”

But it wasn’t far enough for NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan. She wants Trudeau to “state the obvious – that the United States is no longer a safe country for migrant children.”

“Canadians are calling for action. It is about lives, real lives, real people, real children being subjected to torture,” she said.

“Canada must not be complicit in this inhumane treatment of children. Will the prime minister find the courage and suspend the safe third country agreement?”

Hussen repeated that Canada is monitoring the changes in U.S. immigration policy and what effects it will have on asylum seekers in the United States.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel, who formerly has been critical of the Trudeau government’s approach to irregular border crossers in Canada, seemed to support this more measured approach Tuesday.

“The safe third country agreement when it was negotiated included very strict objective criteria that are constantly monitored by government to ensure that the U.S. remains a safe third country,” she said.

“I think it’s very important for us as a country to make that determination based on that objective criteria rather than political media reports.”

Antonia Rodriguez, a delegate of the UN Refugee Agency and an advocate for child refugees and the rights of children, says the U.S. child migrant policy is “inhumane.”

“Being inside a family and being separated and caged, it’s terrible. It cannot be accepted by the international community and we have to do something,” she said.

She believes Canada should explore the possibility of taking more refugees than it currently accepts.

Global trends indicate that new, more collaborative solutions are needed to ensure countries and communities aren’t left alone to deal with influxes of migrants, said Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“We are at a watershed, where success in managing forced displacement globally requires a new and far more comprehensive approach,” he said.

“No one becomes a refugee by choice, but the rest of us can have a choice about how we help.”

Meanwhile, the Trump administration announced late Tuesday it was withdrawing from the United Nations Human Rights Council due to an alleged bias against Israel — this move coming just one day after the human rights chief of the council called the U.S. child migrant policy “unconscionable.”

— Follow @ReporterTeresa on Twitter.