The number of refugee claimants crossing illegally from the U.S. into Quebec continues to rise dramatically – from 432 in February to 644 in March or an increase of 49 per cent – exacerbating the backlog at the Immigration and Refugee Board.
The latest figures were supplied by the RCMP, which intercepts people crossing between official ports of entry – notably at Roxham Rd. near Hemmingford.
For RCMP officers, now accustomed to warning would-be claimants that it is illegal to cross the border before lending them a hand with babies and luggage, it is “business as usual,” said Corporal François Gagnon.
The RCMP picks up people arriving on this side of the unmanned border and routinely takes them to file a refugee claim at the official border crossing – most of the time Lacolle.
As stories of human smuggling surfaced in Saskatchewan, where a woman was arrested Wednesday with nine West Africans in her vehicle and two Canadians were arrested for the same case in North Dakota, Gagnon said that smuggling has not been a concern in Quebec, where people can simply take a cab to the border from Plattsburgh or further afield on their own, then cross the ditch that separates the two countries.
The new arrivals from the U.S., which if the trend continues would see at least 7,540 people cross into Quebec in 2017 – three times the number that arrived by land in 2016 – is creating havoc further down the pipeline, however, as they reach the IRB tribunal.
Anna Pape, a spokesperson for the IRB, said the tribunal was already seeing an increase in claims across the country before the illegal entries made headlines.
“The global movement of people is higher than it’s ever been,” she explained, adding the number of cases before the IRB has gone up three per cent per month.
“Given the increase in claims over time we haven’t been able to deal with the influx that’s coming in now.”
|Asylum claimants at land ports of entry 2011-2017|
|RCMP interceptions in 2017|
Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada
In 2014, there were approximately 14,000 refugee claims received and in 2015, 17,000 were received, she said – an increase of 21 per cent. By 2016, the number of new claims had reached just over 23,600, Pape said, representing an increase of 69 per cent from 2014.
Pape could not comment Thursday on the particular situation in Quebec, however, which has seen the lion’s share of illegal entries by land this year.
But lawyers representing clients before the IRB in Montreal say the bottleneck is becoming acute.
By law, a refugee claimant must be given a first hearing before the IRB within 60 days of making a claim.
According to Jean-Sébastien Boudreault, the president of the Association québécoise des avocats et avocates en droit de l’immigration (AQAADI), half the cases are now postponed indefinitely.
“Right now, I have colleagues who file requests for refugee status, and for one out of two cases, the hearing is postponed because there is no board member available – because there’s a lack of resources to analyze these cases,” he said.
Eric Taillefer, who has represented at least 35 refugees who crossed through Roxham Rd. since Jan. 1, concurs.
“The IRB is trying to find ways to cope with (the influx), but they are having trouble booking all the hearings,” Taillefer said. “They don’t have enough resources.”
In response to the surge, lawyers and refugee advocates have been calling for an end to 2004’s Safe Third Country agreement. It states a refugee who arrives first in the U.S. can only make a refugee claim in the U.S. As such, claimants coming from the U.S. are forced to cross at illegal points of entry or be turned back.
With the election of Donald Trump, and the introduction of executive orders that amount to immigration bans against some countries — all of them Muslim majorities — the lawyers argue the U.S. should no longer be considered a safe country for immigrants.
“The values of the American president’s immigration orders are not the same values as those of the Canadian system,” explained Boudreault.
That said, suspending the Safe Third Country Agreement would do little to alleviate the backlog at the IRB, which adjudicates claims from people entering by air or land, legally or illegally.
Pape said the tribunal is trying instead to become more efficient. On the one hand, the nationals of certain countries — for now, Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea — can be granted refugee status without a hearing. And since the beginning of April, people from countries with an acceptance rate of about 80 per cent or more can be given a shorter hearing, at the end of which their claim is either accepted or rejected. The shorter hearing makes it possible to hear more claims in the time available.
In February, the Canada Border Services Agency said the top three source countries for illegal entries processed at Lacolle were Burundi, Sudan and Eritrea — all of which would be eligible for either an expedited process without a hearing or for a shorter hearing.
About three per cent were detained, usually because they lacked proper identification, or if border agents suspected they could be a risk to society.
The CBSA could not say Thursday where the most recent claimants had come from, or how many had been detained.
La Presse Canadienne contributed to this story.