Asylum applications from Quebec border crossers to be heard by dedicated team

Asylum applications from Quebec border crossers to be heard by dedicated team

OTTAWA — The prospect of growing camps of migrants on the Quebec-New York border prompted Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board to exclusively dedicate 20 of its members Friday to the handling of their sudden barrage of asylum claims.

The agency had been watching carefully the flow of would-be refugees into the province, but it was a sudden recent spike in arrivals that prompted more aggressive action, said Shereen Benzvy Miller, the head of the refugee protection division.

"We want to anticipate and make sure if winter is coming, that there isn't a tent city of people awaiting determination in February," Benzvy Miller said Friday.

"That was really the thing that made us realize this needed special attention."

Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 7 alone, 1,798 people showed up at an unofficial crossing from the U.S. into Quebec. By comparison, only 2,920 claims were filed in Quebec in all of 2015.

"Projections that we are given don't look like it is going to slow down any time soon."

The IRB has no control over how long people will be in temporary accommodation on the border. The Canada Border Services Agency has said the pace of arrivals means that initial screening process is taking far longer than normal and no one should be there for more than a few days.

From that point, it will take weeks or months before a claim is before the board, and Benzvy Miller said they wanted to be ready.

The IRB's move is the latest in a series of extraordinary measures taken to deal with the surge. Twenty-five tents have been set up along the border, while beds have been arranged inside Montreal's Olympic Stadium, a former convent and the old Royal Victoria hospital.

The asylum cases are being triaged in those locations, with officials only completing part of the initial screen and allowing people to move on to their final destination before further processing.

Neither the CBSA nor Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada have responded to requests for clarification on which parts of the screening are being delayed or divided.

The IRB is already facing down a backlog of 1,000 current cases a month on top of the thousands of legacy cases they've already reassigned to members.

Benzvy Miller insisted further redirecting members would have no impact on other applications coming in, though she noted that it's only a pilot project that can be cancelled if it does.

The point of dedicating members to the border crossers is in part because many are believed to come from the same place.

"That's a familiarity that helps in adjudication to figure out the risk and the need for protection for people coming in," she said.

Haitian nationals form the bulk of recent arrivals, believed driven by a change in U.S. policy that many fear would result in mass deportations.

Canada, however, deports people to Haiti already. About 50 per cent of Haitians who applied for asylum in Canada were successful last year, leaving the rest at risk of deportation. In 2015 and 2016, as part of the process of lifting the stay on deportations to Haiti, some were allowed to apply to remain on humanitarian grounds. Statistics released Friday suggest about 83 per cent of those who applied were allowed to say.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel lay the blame for the surge not with politics in the U.S., but in Canada — in particular Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his January tweet saying Canada welcomed those feeling persecution, terror and war.

"The IRB resource allocation here, it's a Band-Aid on a major hole in a dam that's about to burst," Rempel said. 

"The prime minister needs to come out and explain to people it's illegal to cross the border this way ... and that nobody is fleeing persecution from the United States."

When asked about the situation Friday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada wants to be a country of immigration and one that values helping refugees.

"Canadians consider our country to be a very generous country and I'm proud of that," she said in Edmonton.

"But we're also a rules-based country that has laws and regulations and it's important for us to know that our rules and our laws are being enforced."

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press