Refugee surge at U.S. bor­der cre­ates back­log for claims

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CATHER­INE SOLYOM

The num­ber of refugee claimants cross­ing il­le­gally from the U.S. into Que­bec con­tin­ues to rise — from 432 in Fe­bru­ary to 644 in March or an in­crease of 49 per cent — ex­ac­er­bat­ing the back­log at the Im­mi­gra­tion and Refugee Board.

The lat­est fig­ures were sup­plied by the RCMP, which in­ter­cepts peo­ple cross­ing be­tween of­fi­cial ports of en­try — no­tably at Rox­ham Rd. near Hem­ming­ford. For RCMP of­fi­cers, now ac­cus­tomed to warn­ing would-be claimants that it is il­le­gal to cross the bor­der be­fore lend­ing them a hand with ba­bies and lug­gage, it is “busi­ness as usual,” said Cpl. François Gagnon.

The RCMP picks up peo­ple ar­riv­ing on this side of the un­manned bor­der and takes them to file a refugee claim at the of­fi­cial bor­der cross­ing, most of the time La­colle.

As sto­ries of hu­man smug­gling

sur­faced in Saskatchewan, where a woman was ar­rested Wed­nes­day with nine West Africans in her ve­hi­cle and two Cana­di­ans were ar­rested for the same case in North Dakota, Gagnon said smug­gling has not been a con­cern in Que­bec, where peo­ple can sim­ply take a cab to the bor­der from Platts­burgh or far­ther afield, then cross the ditch that sep­a­rates the two coun­tries.

The new ar­rivals from the U.S., which if the trend con­tin­ues would see at least 7,540 peo­ple cross into Que­bec in 2017 — three times the num­ber that ar­rived by land in 2016 — is cre­at­ing havoc fur­ther down the pipe­line, how­ever, as they reach the IRB tri­bunal.

Anna Pape, a spokesper­son for the IRB, said the tri­bunal was al­ready see­ing an in­crease in claims across the coun­try be­fore the il­le­gal en­tries made head­lines.

“The global move­ment of peo­ple is higher than it’s ever been,” she said, adding the num­ber of cases be­fore the IRB has gone up three per cent per month.

“Given the in­crease in claims over time, we haven’t been able to deal with the in­flux that’s com­ing in now.”

In 2014, there were ap­prox­i­mately 14,000 refugee claims re­ceived and in 2015, 17,000 were re­ceived, she said — an in­crease of 21 per cent. By 2016, the num­ber of new claims had reached just over 23,600, Pape said, rep­re­sent­ing an in­crease of 69 per cent from 2014.

Pape could not com­ment Thurs­day on the par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion in Que­bec, how­ever, which has seen the lion’s share of il­le­gal en­tries by land this year.

But lawyers rep­re­sent­ing clients be­fore the IRB in Mon­treal say the bot­tle­neck is be­com­ing acute.

By law, a refugee claimant must be given a first hear­ing be­fore the IRB within 60 days of making a claim.

Ac­cord­ing to Jean-Sébastien Boudreault, the pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion québé­coise des av­o­cats et av­o­cates en droit de l’im­mi­gra­tion (AQAADI), half the cases are now post­poned in­def­i­nitely.

“Right now, I have col­leagues who file re­quests for refugee sta­tus, and for one out of two cases, the hear­ing is post­poned be­cause there is no board mem­ber avail­able — be­cause there’s a lack of re­sources to an­a­lyze th­ese cases,” he said.

Eric Taille­fer, who has rep­re­sented at least 35 refugees who crossed through Rox­ham Rd. since Jan. 1, con­curs.

“The IRB is try­ing to find ways to cope with (the in­flux), but they are hav­ing trou­ble book­ing all the hear­ings,” Taille­fer said. “They don’t have enough re­sources.”

In re­sponse to the surge, lawyers and refugee ad­vo­cates have been call­ing for an end to 2004’s Safe Third Coun­try agree­ment. It states a refugee who arrives first in the U.S. can only make a refugee claim in the U.S. As such, claimants com­ing from the U.S. are forced to cross at il­le­gal points of en­try or be turned back.

With the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, and the in­tro­duc­tion of ex­ec­u­tive or­ders that amount to im­mi­gra­tion bans against some coun­tries — all of them Mus­lim ma­jori­ties — the lawyers ar­gue the U.S. should no longer be con­sid­ered a safe coun­try for im­mi­grants.

“The val­ues of the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent’s im­mi­gra­tion or­ders are not the same val­ues as those of the Cana­dian sys­tem,” said Boudreault.

That said, sus­pend­ing the Safe Third Coun­try Agree­ment would do lit­tle to al­le­vi­ate the back­log at the IRB, which ad­ju­di­cates claims from peo­ple en­ter­ing by air or land, legally or il­le­gally.

Pape said the tri­bunal is try­ing in­stead to be­come more ef­fi­cient. On the one hand, the nationals of cer­tain coun­tries — for now, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea — can be granted refugee sta­tus with­out a hear­ing. And since the begin­ning of April, peo­ple from coun­tries with an ac­cep­tance rate of about 80 per cent or more can be given a shorter hear­ing, at the end of which their claim is ei­ther ac­cepted or re­jected. The shorter hear­ing makes it pos­si­ble to hear more claims in the time avail­able.

In Fe­bru­ary, the Canada Bor­der Ser­vices Agency said the top three source coun­tries for il­le­gal en­tries pro­cessed at La­colle were Bu­rundi, Su­dan and Eritrea — all of which would be el­i­gi­ble for ei­ther an ex­pe­dited process with­out a hear­ing or for a shorter hear­ing.

About three per cent were de­tained, usu­ally be­cause they lacked proper iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, or if bor­der agents sus­pected they could be a risk to so­ci­ety.

The CBSA could not say Thurs­day where the most re­cent claimants had come from, or how many had been de­tained.

PIERRE OBENDRAUF/FILES

New fig­ures from the RCMP show a dra­matic in­crease in the num­ber of refugee claimants en­ter­ing Que­bec from the U.S. The sit­u­a­tion is cre­at­ing havoc at the Im­mi­gra­tion and Refugee Board.

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