Canada Is Not Ready For A Haitian Refugee Crisis

It seems like Canada’s diverse and accepting reputation may be biting the country in its ass.

Thousands of migrants, mostly Haitians, are now illegally crossing the US-Canada border after the Trump administration said it might end “temporary protected status” for Haitians in the next 6 months. Temporary protected status was granted to Haitian refugees in the US in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which created a widely publicized humanitarian crisis. Since Trump’s tough talk on TPS, the number of asylum-seekers more than tripled according to Canadian government data.

More than 3,100 people walked across the border illegally in July, with another 3,800 in the first 15 days of August. 96% of them walked across the border into Quebec, sparking a severe backlash from anti-immigrant groups and opposition politicians in the French-speaking province. With so many migrants fleeing north, Canadian authorities are being forced to set up refugee camps. The Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), which is responsible for hearing all asylum claims, has redeployed resources in an attempt to handle the situation.

“The IRB had to make adjustments to be in a position to respond to the current situation that is clearly unsustainable,” spokeswoman Anna Pape said.

And it absolutely is unsustainable. The Montreal suburb of Boucherville, currently housing some refugees in former seniors’ homes, has received a slew of angry social media messages denouncing the asylum seekers. Montreal, Quebec’s largest city, had to open its Olympic Stadium to house the new arrivals. The Canadian military is in the process of setting up an additional refugee camp in the small town of Cornwall, Ontario to accommodate around 500 migrants while they await IRB hearings, upsetting the local population and municipal government.

“There are mixed feelings in our community on what we think they should be doing and shouldn’t be doing,” said Cornwall Mayor Leslie O’Shaughnessy. “We do not want to create a situation where we are dividing, having divisions within our community.”

Bradley Nuttley, the municipality’s emergency response chief, described how the Canadian forces were building “a tent city, for lack of a better word” on the corner of the lawn of the Nav Centre, a private non-profit corporation that owns and operates the country’s civil air navigation service. The center is billed as a government conference center with all the amenities of a luxury resort; with bookings planned for the fall, the Haitians may need to be moved elsewhere in a few weeks.​

“Can you imagine the noise that’s going to come out of there?” John Thomson said. The 70-year-old lives near the tents, and is concerned about the almost 300 Haitians who have already arrived in Cornwall. However, there have been no problems thus far according to a Cornwall police spokesman.

Member of Parliament (MP) Emmanuel Dubourg traveled to Miami on Thursday to try and counter a campaign of misinformation targeted to Haitians. As a member of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party, the Haitian-Canadian met with nearly two dozen Haitian community leaders and immigration advocates to dispel the idea that simply crossing the border into Canada means migrants are safe.

“If they come irregularly to Canada, the risk is they are going to go back,” Dubourg said. “In about six months, a year, a year-and-a-half, they are going to go back to their country. And if after a few days, let’s say 30 days, they don’t go back by themselves, we are going to deport them and if we deport them, the door is completely closed for them and their family.”

Strong words. Too bad there’s not really any effort to enforce them.

Around 59,000 Haitians received Temporary Protected Status (TPS) during that catastrophic earthquake in 2010. TPS is a government waiver exempting them from deportation back to Haiti. That waiver was renewed several times by the Obama administration, which judged that Haiti was not ready to reabsorb these refugees. Unfortunately, many of these Haitians seem unaware- or don’t care- that Canada ended its own ban on Haitian deportations last summer. In the first quarter of this year, almost two-thirds of Haitian refugee claims were rejected. Yet a strange social media campaign of unknown origins has been telling Haitian communities that Canada wants them all to come here, regardless of status. With the Trump administration signaling that they will end TPS next year combined with Canada’s perceived openness, Haitians appear more willing than ever to take their chances north.

“If these people were aware of the real criteria that need to be met in order to be granted refugee status in Canada, and the likelihood of being turned down and deported from Canada back to Haiti, it’s possible many of them would probably have decided not to have left the United States,” said lawyer Stephane Handfield.

The huge problem is that they don’t know though. An MP went down to Miami to try and talk with community leaders, and an anemic Twitter thread by Transport Minister Marc Garneau was posted last week about measures to tackle the influx. No one outside of Canada- hell, even most people in Canada- have no idea who Garneau is. Serious attempts to share the real requirements for status in Canada need to be shared, and our government is rapidly falling behind. Considering Justin Trudeau’s massive online following and global audience, his silence until only recently has been largely unhelpful. Last week he told a group of reporters that illegal entry into Canada doesn’t confer any special benefits, but that statement went nowhere since, you know, he told a group of reporters instead of actually addressing the social media campaign urging asylum seekers to come to Canada. He has since rectified the situation, but it still leaves many wondering why the prime minister wasn’t as quick to action on immigration now as he was in January.  Remember this tweet?

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canada will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

It sounds all well and good, except the IRB had already been sounding the alarm that it needed more resources. Initial screen interviews, which used to be done in 72 hours, were being extended to a few weeks. Some refugee groups and asylum seekers say they have been given appointments for the fall and even winter. Once the applicants pass their initial clearance, they are supposed to have a hearing with IRB within 60 days- but in reality, some folks were waiting five months. With the recent influx of numbers, the implications are staggering.

The system that’s supposed to regulate asylum claims is broken. We are bound by ‘The Safe Third Country Agreement.’ The 2004 law, which mandates that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe country on which they land, was supposed to prevent asylum-seekers in the US from trying their luck in Canada and vice-versa, but didn’t take into account illegal border crossings. And with the Singh v Canada ruling of 1985, any refugee claimant who has stepped foot in Canada has the right to a hearing. Yes, it is illegal to cross the border at an unofficial point, and the RCMP is doing its best to give the impression that laws are being enforced. They detain any migrants they encounter for crossing illegally, they release them quickly so they can proceed with refugee claims. Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, an individual cannot be charged with a criminal offense for illegally entering Canada. These refugees must be processed, interviewed and given a hearing by law.

According to an internal government analysis obtained by the Canadian Press in June, if the current rate of asylum claimants continues to climb, it will take 11 years for the Immigration Review Board to adjudicate a claim filed this year. So a migrant who arrives in 2017 will not receive their refugee hearing until 2028. Even if the rate levels off and ends at only 28,000 claims for all of 2017, it will still take at least four years for a hearing. That’s de facto citizenship. These people will have been living in Canada long enough to work and establish a life. At that point, kicking them out of the country will be even more difficult, given public perception. The current government already bent to popular outrage and welcomed close to 40,000 Syrian refugees by last Christmas- then quietly slammed the door on further private sponsorships. There are around 25,000 Syrian refugees in a private resettlement application backlog this year. It’s going to cost an estimated $2.6 billion to process all the asylum claims at this point, which doesn’t include the cost of paying for accommodation services and the access to healthcare the refugees must receive by law.

The Safe Third Country Agreement needs to be amended, although the chances of that happening are slim to none. Changing it would require the US to agree to change the 13-year old law, and given what we have seen of President Trump, he is probably pleased to see Haitians leaving the US of their own accord. It spares the US from having to deal with tracking them down after the TPS expires and deporting them. If the agreement were suspended, the political, legal and potentially international human rights implications are astronomical. Some have argued that the numbers of migrants is not quite on the level of crisis, especially compared to European countries, but if nothing is done to stem the flow then this will turn into a crisis; one that our government and resources are not equipped for. The current illogical policies need an overhaul, but Trudeau needs to decide if he’s willing to risk the global reputation of Canada as a humanitarian country of peacekeepers, open to welcoming immigrants. It doesn’t seem like he is right now, but it’s still early in the game. As new refugee camps are arranged, and more reports of upset local communities come in, will he change his tune? That remains to be seen. But I think it’s safe to say that Canada is not ready to handle a migrant crisis.

So what can Canada do about the thousands of asylum seekers pouring over the border? Unfortunately, very little.

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