Montreal Gazette

Experts fix math on asylum seekers

`It's actually Ontario that is getting more' after Roxham Road closure


As late as last November, Quebec Immigratio­n Minister Christine Fréchette told journalist­s that in 2023, for the second year in a row, Quebec will have welcomed more asylum seekers than all other provinces combined.

The supposed inequity spurred Premier François Legault to write a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in January, leaked to The Canadian Press, saying his province was near the “breaking point due to the excessive number of asylum seekers arriving in Quebec month after month.”

“Quebec is no longer in a position to welcome a disproport­ionate share of the asylum seekers entering Canada,” Legault wrote.

The correspond­ence was followed Tuesday by the deployment of four cabinet ministers who warned Quebec is facing a “humanitari­an crisis” unless Ottawa pays the province $1 billion to cover the costs of welcoming asylum seekers. Federal officials responded that they recognized Quebec's needs, but did not want to negotiate via the media.

But the number that Quebec has “welcomed” and the number that actually choose to stay in the province are two different things, immigratio­n experts warn.

“If you look at the statistics from April to December, it's actually Ontario that is getting more (asylum seekers) than Quebec,” said Abdulla Daoud, executive director of the Montreal-based Refugee Centre.

According to figures from the federal government, the total number of asylum claimants processed by the Canada Border Services Agency and Immigratio­n, Refugees and Citizenshi­p Canada (IRCC), which serves as a more accurate representa­tion of where asylum seekers will settle, indicates far more were coming into Quebec during the first three months of the year, when the Roxham Road unofficial border crossing was still open.

But once it was shut in late March, Quebec's numbers initially plummeted, while Ontario's grew as asylum seekers used other ports of entry like airports and official land border crossings. Every month from April to December, Ontario posted higher figures than Quebec.

“I think the numbers don't match the reality of what they're saying,” Daoud said. “And I think it's Montreal that's taking the brunt of it,” because the majority of asylum seekers and community organizati­ons serving them are there.

Just because an asylum seeker makes their claim for refugee status in Quebec doesn't mean they intend to stay there. An investigat­ion by Le Devoir in early February analyzing IRCC data found that between a quarter and a third of all asylum seekers who made their claim in Quebec departed for other provinces soon after. The analysis found as well that the proportion of asylum seekers who live in Quebec has dropped significan­tly compared to 2022, and is not as high as Fréchette had claimed.

Stéphanie Valois, co-president of Quebec's immigratio­n lawyers' associatio­n, said judging from her clientele, it's likely much more than a third leave the province without necessaril­y registerin­g the move with the IRCC, because the process is difficult.

Migrants use Montreal as a landing point because it's a main hub for internatio­nal flights. They leave for a variety of reasons, including language, work prospects, and often because their children have already started schooling in English.

“Before we cite the numbers, I think the government should really appreciate that they are just talking about the numbers that are coming in, but definitely a lot are not staying,. That doesn't seem to be taken into considerat­ion.”

The rise in asylum seekers is partly due to the Canadian government finally tackling a massive backlog in visitor visas last year, resulting in many more arrivals, she noted.

The surge is also a reflection of the fact that global displaceme­nt is at an all-time high, with the United Nations Refugee Agency estimating 110 million worldwide are currently forced out of their homes, Daoud said. Attempts at deterrents, like closing Roxham Road or cracking down on visa applicatio­ns, are doomed to fail given the severity of the crises, he said. More than 65 per cent of asylum seekers' applicatio­ns are accepted in Quebec, he said, indicating the need is real.

“People who are fleeing danger, no matter what obstacle you put in front of them, they will find a way to escape that danger,” he said.

Rather than politicizi­ng the issue, Daoud said, government­s like Quebec need to organize and create the infrastruc­ture necessary for needs like temporary housing and increased schooling. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Canada created a new system allowing it to accept 200,000 Ukrainians in a year.

“No one politicize­d it, no one fought it or said it was overwhelmi­ng,” Daoud said. “No one said, `You owe us $1 billion.'”

Quebec and other provinces have had warning since 2017 the asylum crisis would be at their door, but failed to create the infrastruc­ture to accommodat­e it, making it more costly to deal with now, Daoud said.

“You can't ignore this population and then when it can't be avoided anymore say, `You owe me money.' There is a responsibi­lity the Quebec government is trying to pass off, and I don't think it's fair.”

Valois questioned the government's argument that asylum seekers are stretching the provincial resources, given that most of her clients fill employment needs here and educate their children.

“It's a bit difficult to understand why the government is talking about refugee claimants as the scapegoat for all their problems. We have temporary workers in Quebec, and internatio­nal students in greater number than refugees — so why is everything the fault of refugees? I think they're an easy target.”

 ?? LARS HAGBERG/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES ?? RCMP officers greet refugees as they arrive at the Roxham Road border crossing in Champlain, N.Y., in March 2023. The crossing was closed on March 24, 2023.
LARS HAGBERG/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES RCMP officers greet refugees as they arrive at the Roxham Road border crossing in Champlain, N.Y., in March 2023. The crossing was closed on March 24, 2023.

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