Outside the improvised tent village built just shy of the Canada-US border in Lacolle, QC, a nervous-looking border services agent is waiting for first responders. The makeshift camp is housing roughly 500 asylum seekers, and a woman is feeling unwell.
“There’s going to be so many people here,” he mutters, speaking to no one in particular.
It’s an scorching late summer day, and across the sprawling Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) property, between 1,000 and 1,200 people — mostly Haïtians — are waiting for Canadian officials to process their files. Because of the large crowds, the wait time is up to a few days, and people have been forced to sleep here. First, on the floors of government buildings and now, in 52 large green tents set up by the Canadian Forces.
On Friday, the CBSA announced it would be seeking to double the camp’s capacity.
“We’re at the stage of planning to add capacity to make sure that we can provide shelter for a larger amount of migrants,” spokesperson Patrick Lefort told the media.
He said border services employees from across Canada had also been brought in to lend a hand. “It’s a very demanding humanitarian operation for all CBSA staff.”
The sites are closely guarded by the CBSA, who is keeping media at a distance, so we’re unable to get an update on the ill woman.
Yet bits of life in the tent city are visible from the road: people are dozing outside, painstakingly trying to shield themselves from the booming sun; men are washing themselves using water from portable hand-washing stations.
Nearby, military staff are busily building wooden platforms that will serve as flooring for the tents, providing protection from the rain. There is no air conditioning in the units, which are sitting in the unforgiving August sun. Stories of dehydration, diarrhea and gastro are circulating, but both the CBSA and onsite Red Cross officials decline to comment on the reports.
“Overall people are comfortable, we’re in there distributing food, three meals a day,” Carl Boisvert, Red Cross spokesperson, told VICE News.
Lieutenant Navy Eliane Trahan, public affairs officer for the military, told VICE News she’d spoken to some of the migrants who told her that while things hadn’t been easy, they seemed happy with the tent setup.
But support worker Frantz André, from the Action Committee for People Without Status, was aghast at the setup. “It’s a war zone,” he exclaimed. “These tents are, I’m sure, really warm, it’s a sunny day and I’m puzzled. I think there’s other ways they could have used to bring people into different facilities.”
The number of refugee claimants coming into Canada from the United States has been steadily rising in the last few months, an issue many immigration experts attribute to Donald Trump’s policies and anti-immigration rhetoric.
Since July, Montreal-based refugee support organization PRAIDA says it received nearly 1,200 applications from asylum seekers, a significant increase from the 180 claims the organization fielded in July 2016. CBSA officials estimate they are now dealing with about 230 asylum claims per day, only at Lacolle.
The uptick in Haïtian asylum seekers coming into Quebec is reportedly motivated to Trump’s removal of the Temporary Protection Status that was given to those fleeing the 2010 Port au Prince quake, explains André. However, misinformation circulating on social networks appears to be playing a part, with posts claiming that Canada was actively inviting Haïtians into the country.
“It’s very very sad,” André says of the fake news. “We know for a fact that not everybody will be approved, most likely 50 percent will be deported.”
“Most likely 50 percent will be deported.”
A few kilometres from the camp, down a bucolic drive called Roxham road, the RCMP have set up an ad hoc intake station. This unofficial border crossing is the main point of entry for many of the Haïtian newcomers and other asylum seekers. Inside a broad white tent, families sit patiently as police officers take their information and search their bags.
“It’s pretty surreal,” an RCMP officer tells us. “They’ve just packed up all their worldly possessions into a suitcase like that. You don’t see that a lot here.”
But the Roxham road stop and the Lacolle campsite are the first steps in what will be a multi-level saga for asylum seekers.
Throughout the day, large groups, including small children clutching stuffed animals, are escorted from the tent city to large yellow school buses that will shuttle them 50 minutes away to the next part of their journey, in Montreal.
Immigration Quebec reports that as of August 10, 2,440 asylum seekers were living in housing set up in the city’s community centres, hotels and even some hospitals. The Olympic stadium has also been converted into shelter, with 1050 beds lined up around the concession area. This housing is also temporary, placeholders until proper permanent lodging can be secured.
André hopes government officials will be able to speed up their workflow to better allow these newcomers to live and work. “People need to know that for the next weeks and months, it’s going to be a very tough time,” he says. “It’s a very long process.”
All photos by Matt Joycey unless noted.