Quebec asylum requests surged to 150 a day: immigration minister
Published Thursday, August 3, 2017 11:39AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, August 3, 2017 10:07PM EDT
The Quebec government has asked Ottawa for help managing a surge of people who illegally crossed the U.S.-Canada border and are now seeking asylum in the province.
A day after Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was turned into a temporary shelter for the growing number of asylum seekers, Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said the province has “the experience to face these situations,” but needs more assistance from the federal government.
Weil told reporters Thursday that the rate of people seeking asylum in Quebec spiked to about 150 per day in July and is on track to reach 12,000 by the end of the year.
Of 4,345 people who crossed the U.S.-Canada border between January and late June, 3,350 -- or 77 per cent -- entered into Quebec.
Quebec is asking Ottawa to help set up a triage system along the U.S.-Quebec border to see if some of the illegal crossers can be sent to other provinces while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed.
The province is also asking for additional resources to speed up the processing of those applications, as well as help with finding more permanent accommodations for the claimants.
"The request we have for the federal (government) is to accelerate the treatment of cases to the maximum so that we can quickly know if their (asylum) request is accepted or not so we can better share expenses," Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said Thursday.
The Olympic Stadium was opened up to asylum seekers because Montreal’s shelters are already full. Beds, washroom facilities and food are available for up to 600 people at the arena, which will stay open until Sept. 19.
It cost $1.5 million to prepare the stadium as a shelter and add security, Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois said. The Quebec government will reassess the situation next month if the wave of migrants continues.
"It's not a situation that's meant to be permanent," Charlebois said.
Weil said she has spoken to federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre, who have all pledged to work together on the issue.
All asylum claimants undergo security and health screenings, a protocol that has been in place in Canada for years.
Small town becomes major crossing point
Some of the illegal border crossings are occurring near the small community of Hemmingford, Que. where RCMP officers have been arresting new arrivals coming to Quebec from New York state.
It’s little more than a ditch separating the two countries, and it’s become one of the busiest crossing points into Canada.
A large white tent has become a makeshift reception centre for the border crossers, who are given bottles of water and folding chairs to sit while they await buses to transport them to a processing area a few kilometres away.
Once cleared, many asylum seekers are brought to Montreal.
That was the case for Bethany, a Haitian woman who made the journey with her six-month-old daughter.
Speaking through a Creole interpreter, Bethany told CTV Montreal that uncertainty over whether U.S. President Donald Trump will deport as many as 60,000 Haitians is the reason she made the trek. Her husband was already deported from the U.S., she said.
Others at the border echoed those concerns.
“In the United States, the situation is very uncertain,” one man said on Thursday. “I left so I could have opportunities for a better life in Canada.”
“Canada is a country that treats immigrants well,” another said.
Thousands of Haitians were given temporary protected status in the U.S. under an Obama-era policy made after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
If the policy isn’t extended into 2016, the refugees could be forced out of the U.S. in January and sent back to Haiti, where many say they no longer have homes.
Canada ended its own temporary protected status for Haitians affected by the earthquake last year. Of the claims from Haiti processed in 2016, 52 per cent were accepted.
But it’s far from certain that those crossing into Canada will be able allowed stay, says refugee advocate Rivka Augenfeld.
“There’s no guarantee, and anyone who guarantees somebody that they will be accepted is lying to them,” Augenfeld said.
Asylum seekers being screened
For those willing to take the risk, RCMP Const. Erique Gasse told The Canadian Press that any suspected criminals would be taken to a detention centre. He said most of the newcomers are sent to the Lacolle border to file refugee claims.
"Our officers are doing an extraordinary job in the field," he said. "They're patient, they're professional, they're Canadian police officers just doing their jobs."
Liberal MP Marc Miller, who represents Quebec’s Ville-Marie - Le Sud-Ouest -Ile-des-Soeurs riding, said Thursday that the federal government is committed to processing the refugee claims without compromising safety. He stressed that the “health, safety and security of Canadians” is the government’s top priority.
But immigration lawyer and former adviser under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government Neil Drabkin says that those making the illegal crossings are taking advantage of a loophole in the law.
“What they are effectively doing is coming here illegally and jumping the queue. The vast majority of Canadians want us to be generous, but the vast majority of Canadians also don’t want our laws and our systems undermined,” Drabkin said.
The Safe Third Country Agreement is a deal between Canada and the U.S. that governs where people can make asylum claims on either side of the border.
Under the agreement, potential refugees must claim asylum in the first country that they enter. Because of this, many people have crossed illegally into Canada, where they can access rules that permit them a hearing if they are deemed refugees.
Several groups -- including the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches -- have called on the federal government to suspend the deal after Trump’s hardline stance on illegal immigrants.
A legal challenge was launched in early July against the agreement, arguing that sending claimants back to the U.S. violates their rights.
The federal government has said that the Safe Third Country Agreement doesn’t need to be halted because the U.S. asylum system is still working.
Canada has handled similar influx
Paul Clarke, the executive director of Action Refugies Montreal, told CTV News Channel Thursday that it could take months to process all the asylum claims in Quebec, given the surge of applications.
He said many people will likely not get to stay in Canada. Those whose asylum claims are denied will be sent back to their country of origin, not the United States, Clarke added.
Clarke also noted that this is not the first time Canada has seen a surge of asylum seekers. From 2000 to 2001, there were more than 40,000 people who made asylum claims in the country, he said.
“So we’re not at record numbers,” he said. “We’re hearing a lot of words about a torrent or a wave, but we have seen these kinds of numbers before.”
With files from The Canadian Press and CTV Montreal