Asylum seekers in Atlantic Canada struggle to obtain legal counsel
By Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) - An influx of asylum seekers into Canada via unofficial border crossings has prompted the federal government to relocate refugees from Quebec as far as Atlantic provinces, some more than 1,000 km (621 miles) away, and hire a risk mitigation company to deal with the record surge.
The government's latest measures underscore the human fallout of the situation at the U.S.-Canada border. After almost 40,000 asylum seekers entered Canada from the U.S. through irregular border crossings last year, the two countries revised their two-decade-old asylum pact last week to stem the flow of asylum seekers.
But those who entered Canada before revisions came into effect early Saturday need access to housing, social services and legal counsel to fulfil what many told Reuters were their hopes of having a better shot in Canada.
After moving thousands of asylum seekers from Quebec to Ontario, the federal government relocated some 393 asylum seekers to the Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland as of March 19, according to official data. These transfers over the past several months have been Canada's first relocations of asylum seekers, the government said.
Some of the asylum seekers and advocates told Reuters there is inadequate access to legal counsel, potentially jeopardizing refugee claims.
Refugee claims are ineligible for legal aid in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, leaving some claimants who cannot afford their own lawyer without representation. New Brunswick's immigration minister said in a statement the province is working to change this.
"There are huge right-to-counsel and access-to-justice issues that have arisen from this," Julie Chamagne, executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic, told Reuters. She said refugee clinics providing legal aid in small communities are struggling to meet the needs of newly arrived asylum seekers.
Chamagne said her three staff lawyers are trying to help 164 asylum seekers transferred to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
RACE AGAINST TIME
Asylum seekers have up to 45 days from the date they were deemed eligible to file the basis for their refugee claim.
One refugee claimant in New Brunswick, originally from Colombia, said through a translator he and his family are struggling to fill out claim paperwork without legal assistance because they cannot afford a lawyer.
"They are telling us to fill out the forms and not giving us proper legal advice. ... We're very worried. Time is running out," he said.
"We need a lawyer."
The refugee asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted if he is deported.
The federal government hired risk mitigation company Xpera on a C$4.5-million ($3.3 million) contract in February to work with asylum seekers in Atlantic provinces, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
Xpera's services include securing hotel rooms, arranging transportation and "ensuring the basic needs of asylum claimants are met under tight deadlines," IRCC said in a statement, adding the company is also working with asylum seekers in Ontario and Quebec.
But lawyers and an asylum seeker told Reuters the company's staff is pressuring them to file bases of claim quickly, often without access to legal counsel. This could doom a refugee claim if claimants file documents with inadequate evidence or if they leave out crucial information, lawyers told Reuters.
Xpera referred questions to IRCC, which said it is investigating and that "such actions would be out of the scope of [Xpera's] mandate," adding that Xpera has been told not to intervene in completion or submission of claim forms or provide advice to applicants.
New Brunswick lawyer Jael Duarte told Reuters that on one occasion, Xpera staff prevented her from talking to a client in their hotel room.
Asked about this, IRCC said that, "Should stakeholders (such as lawyers) require a space to meet with asylum seekers, they can speak to the IRCC staff on site to make arrangements."
($1 = 1.3606 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas, Josie Kao and Stephen Coates)