Protesters call on gov't to do more for asylum seekers risking their lives on pandemic frontlines
TORONTO -- A group of protesters set up camp outside of the Prime Minister’s constituency office in Montreal on Saturday, calling on the government to do more to help asylum seekers currently risking their lives working in long-term care homes stricken by COVID-19.
Protesters are speaking up on behalf of migrants who don’t want to be identified, fearing deportation. According to advocates, hundreds of asylum seekers have been doing essential work in Quebec’s senior homes, which have been hit hard by COVID-19.
“They sacrifice themselves,” Wilner Cayo, president of Stand Up For Dignity, told CTV News. “They pay a great price, at least recognize them [by] granting them their permanent residence.”
There are at least 800 asylum seekers currently working as orderlies in long-term care facilities in Quebec, according to Frantz Andre of Action Committee for People Without Status, the group behind the protest.
Marcelin Francois was one of these workers.
Although his face was on some of the posters waved by protesters, he couldn’t be at Saturday’s demonstration.
The 40-year-old contracted COVID-19 last month and died in his wife's arms.
Like thousands of others, he crossed into Quebec on Roxham Road, the country's busiest illegal crossing, which was shut down in March.
The father of three worked two jobs, one as an orderly.
“These people are saving our seniors, they're saving our parents, our grandparents, and they're risking their [lives] to take care of us,” Montreal lawyer May Chiu told CTV News.
Long-term care homes account for more than 80 per cent of the deaths in Canada, and the danger of working in one has led to staff shortages in many regions.
Migrants filling these essential positions are helping at-risk Canadians during a global crisis with no guarantee that they’ll be allowed to stay in Canada, Andre pointed out.
“A lot of them are from Haiti and other countries and they don’t have the choice but to be working because they don’t have the financial potential to take care of themselves,” he told CTV News Montreal. “If we don’t take care of them… who’s going to take care of us?”
A Haitian man who attended the protest told CTV News that his wife feeds and bathes seniors in a long-term care facility where the virus has claimed 18 lives.
“She is working directly with people with COVID-19, and deserves to have her residency application fast tracked,” he said.
But although Quebec's premier has called all health workers “guardian angels,” the essential work these migrants are putting in has not changed his stance on the rules.
“We cannot open the door to say ‘if you come illegally, if you find a job that's okay, I will accept you as an immigrant’,” Quebec Premier Francois Legault said in a press conference. “That’s not the way it works.”
Marjorie Villefranche, the director of the Maison d’Haiti community centre in the Montreal neighbourhood Saint-Michel, believes migrant workers filling essential roles during the pandemic should be upgraded to immigrant status, instead of having to rely on the uncertain refugee claims process.
Saint-Michel is one of the neighbourhoods suffering the brunt of COVID-19 in Montreal -- and many of its residents are migrants who work in health care.
Out of the 27,000 asylum-seekers who arrived in Montreal over the last three years, 5,000 were resettled singlehandedly by The Maison d’Haiti.
“When COVID is over, you’re having to tell them, go back to your countries?” Villefranche told CTV News Montreal in early May. “It would be a shame.”
Ottawa says all asylum seekers will receive a full and fair hearing, but when these hearings could be held is unclear. All in-person hearings have been suspended due to COVID-19 -- leaving thousands unsure if they will have a future in Canada after the pandemic.