MONTREAL — Quebec's premier is asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make the flow of migrants across an irregular border crossing in southern Quebec a priority during a meeting next month with U.S. President Joe Biden.
In a letter to Trudeau dated Sunday, François Legault wrote that the federal government urgently needs to complete the renegotiation of an agreement with the United States that has pushed asylum seekers to enter Canada at the irregular border crossing, known as Roxham Road. Legault called for the renegotiated treaty to apply at all entry points.
"Roxham Road will have to be closed eventually, whether we like it or not," Legault wrote. He said that as prime minister, Trudeau's primary responsibility is to ensure that borders are respected. "Therefore, I am asking you to make this a priority subject during your upcoming meeting with the U.S. president, Mr. Biden."
The Safe Third Country Agreement requires asylum seekers arriving in Canada or the U.S. to claim refugee status in the first country they arrive in and forbids them from claiming refugee status in the other. However, migrants who cross the border between official posts can claim asylum after they are intercepted by police as they are already on Canadian soil.
Legault said Quebec has taken in a disproportionate share of asylum seekers and the province's social services and community organizations have been overwhelmed. He added that a growing number of migrants are finding themselves homeless.
"Quebec has a long tradition of welcoming refugees, and we are proud to contribute to this humanitarian duty. However, this influx cannot continue," he wrote. "The capacity to receive refugees has been greatly exceeded."
Federal statistics show that more than 39,000 people claimed asylum after they were intercepted by the RCMP crossing Canada's land border into Quebec in 2022, compared with 369 in the rest of the country. In total, around 64 per cent of all asylum claims in Canada in 2022 were made in Quebec.
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Last year's numbers were a sharp increase from 2021, when 4,095 migrants were intercepted on Quebec's southern border.
Legault said he's also worried that the arrival of tens of thousands of migrants -- many of whom don't speak French -- will impede the province's efforts to stop the decline of the use of French in Montreal.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has said that more than 5,550 migrants have been sent from Quebec to Ontario since the summer. And last week, Quebec's immigration minister said that since Feb. 11 almost all new asylum seekers were being diverted to other provinces. Legault said he wants that to continue.
"We obviously welcome these efforts, but our concerns remain and it is essential that this new approach is maintained over time and that asylum seekers who enter in an irregular fashion are all sent to other provinces because Quebec has done more than its share of the work in recent years," he wrote.
A community organization in Cornwall, Ont., a city about 40 kilometres west of the Quebec boundary where more than 1,000 migrants have been sent, said last week that some people they've helped have no winter clothes, and others do not know where they are. In Cornwall and in Ontario's Niagara region, municipal governments have said they're worried about their ability to provide services to the influx of new arrivals.
Last week, Trudeau told reporters he expects to have something to announce about the Safe Third Country Agreement renegotiations in the coming months.
The Prime Minister's Office on Monday referred questions about Legault's letter to Immigration Minister Sean Fraser's office.
In an emailed statement on Monday evening, Fraser's office acknowledged that Quebec's services and resources have been "placed under immense pressure" due to the fact that a majority of asylum claimants arrive at Roxham Road.
In addition to transferring asylum seekers to Ontario, the immigration minister's office said it is "also actively working with other provinces and municipalities to identify new temporary accommodations, including settlement programs such as skills matching with employers, and language training for asylum claimants."
It said it is also encouraging people who want to enter Canada to consider other ways to enter the country.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 20, 2023.