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Federal ministers announced new measures Monday to address an influx of asylum claimants arriving in Quebec through unofficial entry points on the U.S. border.
Part of the plan is a visit this month by Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to speak with officials in Nigeria, where the majority of migrants have been coming from lately. There are three federal visa officials already in Lagos, reaching out to locals to inform them of the risks of illegally crossing into Canada.
Minister of Transport Marc Garneau said that the Nigerian migrants spend a few weeks in the United States before making their way to Canada with their U.S. tourist visas to claim asylum.
Hussen said that the government is trying to prevent this form of “abuse” of U.S. visas. He said Canadian officials are sharing information with their U.S. counterparts to investigate the growing number of claimants using tourist visas to enter Canada. The visas “should not be used as a conduit to try to jump the border,” said Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale.
Quebec has received about 6,000 migrants since the start of this year alone, a threefold jump from the same period last year. Senior Quebec ministers put out a call for help from the federal government a few weeks ago, saying temporary housing in the province will soon reach capacity.
For 2018, up until the end of February alone, Quebec received almost 800 Nigerian asylum seekers. In contrast, Ontario took in a little over 100 and Alberta only five.
Spike of 400 daily crossings expected
Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, told National Observer last summer that border officials were inundated with processing up to 600 asylum seekers in Lacolle. The numbers came straight from frontline agent workers and were far from what the government said they were dealing with — 150 per day. Along with warmer weather, officials anticipate a spike of up to 400 crossings per day.
Last summer the wave of migrants were of Haitian origin, as the Trump administration had ended temporary protected status for them. Now that many migrants crossing the border are from Nigeria, Canada has been asking US immigration officials to more stringently screen them before granting visas, according to the Washington Post.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees, said that migrants have historically used U.S. tourist visas to seek asylum in Canada. “There’s nothing new or different about it. It’s because it’s extremely difficult for people whose life is in danger for them to get a visa to come to Canada because the Canadian government refuses to give them visas.”
She said many of those refugees have successfully attained Canadian citizenship and are now contributing members of society.
“Coming across the border in a way that tries to circumvent the law or defy public procedure is no ‘free ticket’ to Canada,” says Ralph Goodale. #cdnpoli #refugees
Dench also said migration through unofficial entry points can be avoided all together if the government suspended the Safe Third Country Agreement. Under this 14-year-old policy with the United States, migrants must claim asylum at an official point of entry in the first country they land in — that is, if they arrive on U.S. soil first, they should not be seeking status in Canada, as the U.S. is considered a safe country.
“The agreement is unfair because it’s based on the presumption that the U.S. is safe for refugees, where it is in fact not safe for all refugees,” she said.
Dench added that claims would be more dispersed across the country if the government closes the loophole through which migrants can apply for asylum at unofficial points of entry, by simply withdrawing from the agreement.
Hussen said there are no official negotiations with the United States to change the agreement.
Opposition critic wants loophole closed
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel called the Liberal measures a "Band-Aid" approach.
"There's no evidence this will stem the tide of people exploiting the loophole in the Safe Third Country agreement," she said in Ottawa. "The Liberals once again refused to close the loophole."
Goodale sought to stress a “strong message of border management.” He reiterated that all asylum claimants will face a vigorous process.
“All Canadian laws are and will continue to be enforced,” he said. “Coming across the border, in a way that tries to circumvent the law or defy public procedure is no ‘free ticket’ to Canada."
Ottawa announced last week it will set up a facility that could house up to 520 migrants at St-Bernard-de-Lacolle where the bulk of migrants enter Quebec.
Hussen said he expects the backlog of refugees to be cleared in 2019. The government has hired an additional 70 adjudicators for the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, who would process an additional 17,000 claims per year. Hussen said $74 million was earmarked to accelerate claims processing.
The government also clarified the public perception that claimants are jumping the queue ahead of other immigrants. “Asylum seekers do not take the place of other immigrants who come to Canada,” Hussen emphasized. There are set targets for the other streams such as family sponsorship, he said.
The ministry of immigration of Quebec said in a statement that the federal government has taken steps in the right direction with the budget to address delays in processing asylum claims. It also stated that a federal proposal last month for a triage system at the border to disperse migrants from Montreal to other parts of Quebec or the rest of country will help alleviate the influx.
Ahmed did not give specific dates for when this service will be available.
— With files from The Canadian Press
Editor's note: This story was updated at 10:27 a.m. EST on May 8, 2018 with additional information.