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Quebec has spent hundreds of millions of dollars resettling refugees and asylum seekers over the past few years, which is more than its fair share, Immigration Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette told a United Nations representative Thursday during a testy exchange at the legislature.
In response, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the representative in Canada of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said Jolin-Barrette seems to consider asylum seekers a "burden" on Quebec society.
"We have to be careful about this dichotomy, which tends to says refugees are a burden, as you are trying to emphasize right now," Beuze said. "This is not necessarily the reality."
Jolin-Barrette's snapped back: "I never said that refugees were a burden .... The comments you attribute to me are not acceptable."
Beuze was addressing a legislature committee studying the province's immigration plan. Quebec plans to reduce immigration by 20 per cent in 2019, to 40,000 people. The province plans on slowly increasing the number over the next few years, to reach about 52,500 people in 2022.
Business groups had told the committee earlier in the week Quebec needs to accept significantly more immigrants to meet labour needs. While Beuze said Thursday the United Nations encourages Quebec to resettle more refugees.
Jolin-Barrette and his government, however, have promised to reduce annual immigration amid concerns newcomers weren't properly integrating. Premier Francois Legault has also repeatedly said Quebec plans on increasing the percentage of economic immigrants to the province, giving priority to those who have job offers outside the big cities.
Beuze said refugees on average are quick to learn French and have the highest rate of entrepreneurship among all newcomers to the province. He told the committee the Quebec government's discourse supports a view that economic immigrants are better than people who come to the province for humanitarian reasons.
Jolin-Barrette took offence at Beuze's comments, saying his government believes all immigrants can enrich society and fully participate in the economy.
Speaking to reporters after the committee hearings, Jolin-Barrette said Beuze wasn't painting a full picture of Quebec's efforts resettling refugees. The vast majority of the thousands of people who have crossed irregularly into Canada from the United States and applied for asylum since 2017 have done so in Quebec, he noted.
"We can't put our heads in the sand," the minister said. "We have to integrate the immigrants who choose Quebec, but when people come irregularly ... there is a cost to the Quebec treasury, and it's important to highlight that Quebec is doing more than its part."
Jolin-Barrette added his government is set to reach its immigration reduction targets for this year. "It was the choice of the Quebec government and of the Quebec nation to take a step back ... in 2019," he said.