After Wave of Haitian Refugees, Montrealers Question US Asylum Deal

A reported 500 asylum seekers arrived in Quebec on Tuesday alone. We asked an immigration lawyer what it means.

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Aug 4 2017, 2:22pm

Image via The Canadian Press

As Canada continues to welcome a growing number of asylum seekers fleeing the US, experts are calling for Canada to suspend a treaty that deems its southern neighbour a safe place for refugees.

This week, Montreal turned its iconic Olympic Stadium into emergency housing for the hundreds of refugees that have crossed into the country in recent days. A reported 500 asylum seekers—mostly Haïtian—came through Quebec's Lacolle border crossing Tuesday, reportedly fleeing President Trump's increasingly draconian immigration policies.

Yet their entry into Canada is made complicated by the Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact that prevents immigrants claiming asylum in the States to then seek refuge in Canada. The agreement is based on the premise that the US is a safe country for refugees, which is—according to immigration experts and Harvard researchers—no longer the case. Many are now calling for Justin Trudeau to bow out of the treaty, a move that could threaten diplomatic relations between the two nations.

We asked Montreal-based immigration lawyer Stéphane Handfield to break down the situation.

VICE: Can you give us an overview of what is happening right now on your end?
Stéphane Handfield: In recent weeks we've being called upon to manage a rather massive influx of Haitian refugees who are leaving the United States and coming through the Canadian border.

From what we're hearing, many of those fleeing the US are doing so because of statements made by President Trump, declarations that he would be ending the temporary residence program established in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake [in Haïti]. Back then, President Obama had given Haïtian citizens temporary status in the US, allowing people to live and work here while they waited for the outcome of their asylum claims.

Trump announced that he would be making away with this program, so obviously people are afraid of being arrested, being deported to Haïti and feel they have no alternative than to turn to Canada.

Do you think the majority of people leaving the States are doing so because of Trump's policies?
It's clear. In the last few days, the people who have been coming in are Haïtians who fear being arrested or deported because of Trump's policies. Some of my clients have told us that their family members or people in their community had already been arrested and deported to Haiti, even though they had a pending asylum application. This actually goes against the Geneva Convention, of which the United States is a signatory.

The President's attitude, his declarations and his policies on immigration have an undeniable and direct effect.

What is the Safe Third Country agreement, and why do you think it should be renegotiated?
This agreement stipulates that a person arriving into Canada from the United States a to apply for refugee status must demonstrate that they have already applied for asylum in the US and been refused or show that they already have family in Canada.

If they are unable to meet one of these two criteria, the claim will be deemed inadmissible and the person will be sent back to American soil. But if the person crosses the border irregularly and finds themselves on Canadian soil, they are not governed by the Safe Third Country agreement.

So if the effects of the Safe Third Country agreement were put on ice or abolished for the time being, people wouldn't have to cross the border in an "irregular" fashion. They'd be able to go directly through the border crossing and would immediately be taken in by authorities, which would eliminate the duplication of resources that's bogging down the system. People could make their requests directly at the border.

How do we manage this conversation, diplomatically?
I sincerely believe the reason why the federal government isn't moving on the Safe Third Country agreement is because it's trying to maintain good relations with the United States. The message we'd be sending if we were to put a hold or a kibosh on this deal is that we no longer consider the US to be a safe country.

That being said, this year the Harvard Department of Immigration Law published a report that draws this very conclusion, that the United States is no longer a safe country for refugees or for people fleeing persecution in their country of origin. So we have evidence that supports the suspension of this agreement.

But let's go back to Trump's proposed plan to remove protections given to the Haïtian community, because Canada's former Conservative government actually did this or tried to do this back in 2015, no? Back then, thousands of people were threatened with expulsion from Canada. What is the status of this?
There was a special program for Haitians, a permanent residency program for humanitarian reasons, to regulate their status in Canada, for all people who had applied for asylum but who had been refused. The Conservatives had abolished the moratorium on expulsions, but the Liberals have taken steps to correct this.

What will happen to these new asylum seekers?
Well, now the government is faced with a situation where the status quo is not working and decisions must be taken, quick changes need to be made.

These new asylum seekers hope that their asylum application will be recognized and that their case will go through to the immigration court. If that happens, they'll be able to apply for Canadian resident status and possibly for citizenship. If their claim is rejected by the court, they will be deported from Canada to their country of origin.

Right now, border officials are unable to handle all the people coming through the border and so they're setting asylum seekers up with appointments at the immigration office in Montreal. As we speak, these appointments are scheduled for September. So people will have to wait til then to see if their asylum claim will even be deemed admissible. Then they'll be given a hearing date before the Immigration Commission and logistically, that is not likely to happen in 2017. This is why I think it's incredibly important to give these people work permits immediately, to give them the opportunity to support themselves.

Tell me a little about this emergency housing that's been set up at the Olympic Stadium, this has never been done before…
Yeah this is pretty exceptional, but it's better to host refugees at the Olympic Stadium than to leave them on the streets. The problem we're currently experiencing in Quebec, more specifically in Montreal, is that there is so much demand from asylum seekers that organizations that help find accommodations for refugees are overwhelmed. The YMCA, hotels, university residences, all these places are overflowing and we don't really have any other alternatives.

It is not an ideal place, and at the moment there are families, children and even pregnant women in there, but we have no choice.

Will they have to stay there for a long time?
These are all temporary accommodations, we're just waiting for the agencies to find actual apartments for these people. We're not sure how long the stadium will be used for housing, it's a matter of supply and demand.

If the numbers continue to be the same, and we're seeing like 200, 300 or 400 new asylum seekers per day at one single border crossing in Quebec, I can't see how this agreement with the Olympic facilities could end.

Yesterday, there were nearly 500 people only at the Lacolle border crossing. Processing the file of one single asylum seeker takes anywhere between six to eight hours. So you can try to calculate how long this will all take.

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