CTV News has obtained government documents that outline the interdepartmental scramble to address the large number of asylum seekers crossing from the U.S. into Canada earlier this year, with officials citing concerns that the number of refugee claimants would overwhelm the system, potentially “resulting in pseudo-refugee camps” affecting everything from processing to public safety.
This winter, the small town of Emerson, Manitoba was the first to see the influx. Followed by Quebec, the numbers grew from dozens of people to thousands in just a few short months. And while the federal government was quick to reassure the public, behind-the-scenes, officials were expressing concerns.
Government documents, including draft reports, and emails obtained by CTV News through an access to information request show that there were worries the sudden influx of asylum seekers could overwhelm the processing chain, “essentially resulting in pseudo-refugee camps.” One official even highlighted “Threat to Canadians” and “death of a refugee” as significant risks as asylum seekers crossed into Canada in the bitter winter cold.
As the numbers of asylum seekers climbed in March, Public Safety and other governmental departments developed a contingency plan. But in the partially redacted documents obtained by CTV News, officials expressed growing concerns that there was not enough manpower, money or resources to handle the unprecedented number of asylum seekers. One document even expressed a fear that immigration workers, border agents and RCMP members would “burn out” and that to deal with the influx, the government would quickly need to “invest funds.”
Officials also expressed concerns that Canada’s refugee system would be pushed past its limits. Immigration officials can only process 14,500 asylum seekers a year with available resources, but a document stated that “current intelligence forecasts indicates a likelihood of exceeding 40,000 claimants.”
On Thursday, during a briefing on asylum seekers in Ottawa, the government confirmed that Canada is well on its way to reaching that number, with over 32,000 asylum seekers arriving in Canada this year to date. The bulk of them are now in Quebec, where more than 5,500 asylum seekers crossed into Canada in August. Most of them were Haitians who had been living in the U.S. on visas.
It was in Quebec where the “pseudo-refugee camps” officials worried about took shape in the form of temporary shelters, which were dismantled Thursday. The federal-provincial taskforce overseeing the influx also said Thursday that it appears that the numbers of asylum seekers entering Quebec are dropping for September from an earlier peak of 250 people per day.
“Now it’s 50 people a day,” Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told reporters on Thursday. “We for sure are not seeing the volumes that we saw in some days in August.”
Still, with the number of asylum seekers getting closer to 40,000 every week, officials admit that the pressure facing Canada’s immigration and refugee system has increased, creating a backlog the documents indicate could take up to three years to get through.
With a report from CTV News Winnipeg bureau chief Jill Macyshon