MONTREAL — Canada has seen a spike in the number of Mexicans seeking asylum here this year, with the vast majority of them coming to Montreal. They say they are fleeing Mexico in search of jobs and safety, but statistics show most applicants from the country are rejected.
Ricardo Santos, 28, arrived at Montréal-Trudeau International Airport on Oct. 4. He says that although he did not know much about Canada, there was a direct flight to Montreal from Mexico City.
"I left because there is no work and there is a lot of violence," Santos said in a recent interview outside a downtown YMCA, where he was staying while his refugee application was processed. "Mexico is becoming a more dangerous country."
From January to mid-October, 6,501 of the 7,968 Mexican asylum seekers arriving in Canada by air landed in Montreal, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. That's almost six times as many as arrived at the airport with the second largest number of Mexican refugee claimants — Toronto Pearson Airport — which recorded 1,108 over the same period. In 2021, a total of 1,640 Mexican asylum seekers arrived in Canada by air.
"I hope to find work," Santos said. "Hopefully, everything goes well with the paperwork so I can start working as soon as possible. Montreal is much calmer than Mexico. There seems to be more tranquillity, and it seems safer, too." He said it is easier as an asylum seeker to enter Canada than the United States.
Carrefour Solidarité Anjou, a group that provides assistance to newcomers in Montreal, said that out of 1,000 households using its services, about 50 per cent are Mexican asylum seekers.
"Lately, we have received a large number of asylum seekers coming from Mexico, especially since July," Hayet Mohamed, who oversees the centre's French language courses, said during a recent interview.
Mohamed said that many Mexican asylum seekers with whom she has spoken over the last few months said they chose Montreal because it is easy to travel to from Mexico. As well, Mexicans don't need a visa to travel to Canada since the requirement was lifted in December 2016 by the federal government.
Amparo Duarte, who also works at Carrefour Solidarité Anjou, said many Mexican immigrants talked about the ease of the refugee application process as another reason for choosing Canada.
"According to what people have told me, it is easy to enter the country, and the claims process is fast, and it is the government of Quebec that facilitates this process," Duarte said during a recent interview. She said the provincial government has made accessing social assistance simple, "and that provides asylum seekers assurance that they will receive some financial relief."
The Quebec government's website says that asylum seekers who arrive in the province can apply for last-resort financial assistance if they are experiencing financial difficulties. The purpose of the assistance is to provide immigrants with money for the time it takes to integrate them into the job market after they learn French.
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada says that between January and June, 2,747 claims from Mexican asylum seekers were referred to its refugee protection division. In 2021, the board received 3,321 claims for the whole year.
"The reason for their arrival is practically the same for all, so if you ask them the question and talk to them, it is mainly insecurity in the country. We are talking about violence and insecurity and especially the inability to find work. People are fleeing poverty," Mohamed said.
Human Rights Watch says violence in Mexico — including torture, enforced disappearances, abuses against migrants, extrajudicial killings, gender-based violence, and attacks on independent journalists — is rampant.
"The criminal justice system routinely fails to provide justice to victims of violent crimes and human rights violations," the human rights group said in its report on that country in 2022."
Mohamed and Duarte said that most of the Mexican immigrants who request their services are families.
Francisco Varela Hernandez, 24, is also staying at the same downtown Montreal YMCA as Santos after arriving in the city on Oct. 10. He said he left his home country because of the violence.
"In Mexico, I lived through a few violent encounters, and so I decided to leave. I felt like Montreal was a good option since it has a good economy and also because this city is one of the cheaper ones in Canada for certain things, like housing," Varela Hernandez said.
However, Mohamed said that many of the asylum seekers who go to the centre are in a precarious situation because they often have a hard time finding housing and becoming financially stable.
Once asylum seekers apply for refugee protection in Canada, they can seek a work permit — but they may not be able to stay long. Canada's refugee board says the majority of asylum seekers from Mexico do not meet the definition of refugee as defined by the United Nations, which is the definition used by Canada. In order to be granted refugee status, an applicant must convince the country's refugee board that they are in need of protection.
Under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, a person in need of protection is a person who would be subjected personally to a danger of torture, a risk to their life, or a risk of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment if they were returned to their home country.
Canada's refugee board says that out of the 2,747 refugee claims they received from January to June of this year, 637 were accepted and 850 were refused.The remaining claims were either abandoned, withdrawn or are awaiting a decision.
"Each week, some will tell me that their claim was denied, and others share that they have been accepted. It all depends on their stories and the proof that they can provide," Duarte said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press