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Care and Dignity for Asylum-Seekers

Closing Roxham Road is not a solution, Legault

On February 21, Premier François Legault wrote an open letter to The Globe and Mail calling on the Trudeau government to shut down Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing between New York and Quebec, in order to control the recent influx of asylum-seekers to Quebec. Legault remarked that “this situation […] raises several humanitarian considerations, as it is becoming increasingly difficult to receive asylum-seekers with dignity.” 

Legault’s letter responds to an influx of refugee claimants crossing the US border through various unofficial entry points since 2017. Quebec has received much of this surge. In 2022, the province received 39,171 of the 39,540 Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) interceptions in the country; these numbers represent the majority of asylum-seekers processed at unofficial border points. Of the total asylum claimants in 2022, Quebec processed 58,995 of the total 92,100 asylum claimants. This is a massive increase in the number of claimants compared to 2021, when pandemic restrictions were still in place. That year, Quebec only processed 10,085 of the country’s total 24,920 asylum claimants. 

In the first two months of 2022, 4,500 people applied for asylum after crossing Roxham Road. Despite being an unofficial crossing, there is a semi-permanent RCMP post set up by the federal government along the road for police officers to begin processing asylum claims. Many migrants use this unofficial crossing under the Safe Third Country Agreement. The joint Canada-US agreement, which came into effect in 2004, states that refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in. Yet the agreement does not address unofficial points of entry. While it is illegal for asylum-seekers to cross the border anywhere other than official points of entry, once in Canada, they are legally allowed to apply for asylum, which is a step toward refugee status. 

Beyond closing Roxham Road, Legault and other politicians have been calling on Trudeau to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement with the US. It is unclear whether these demands will be met or how effective they would be. In July, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada began transferring migrants arriving in Quebec to Ottawa and Niagara Falls to reduce the strain on Quebec’s social services. Some advocates are questioning this decision, claiming that redirecting would-be refugees does not solve the problem. “What if some of these asylum seekers coming in have family here?,” asks Dina Souleiman, Executive Director of the Welcome Collective. Cities where migrants are transferred are also experiencing strains on their social services. The transferring of migrants outside of Quebec is not an adequate response to this influx. Rather, social services in Quebec and beyond need better funding and resources to treat would-be refugees with care and dignity.

Legault’s letter caused concern for the strain that such an influx has put on the province’s housing, education, and social services.  Due to a lack of resources for organizations mandated to help asylum-seekers and administrative delays within the federal asylum application process, would-be refugees are being pushed to access homeless shelters. These shelters are already overwhelmed in the winter. Sam Watts, head of homeless shelters with the Welcome Hall Mission, has reported a rise over the last few months in asylum-seekers looking for a place to stay. Watts also that homelessness is a relatively new phenomenon for the asylum-seeker population in Montreal. Jean-Sébastien Patrice, head of a community food service in the Côte-des-Neiges district, noted, “our services are stretched to the maximum. We are at 400 per cent of our capacity, without substantial funding to meet the needs.” The Centre de pédiatrie sociale de Saint-Laurent, a Montreal pediatric centre, has said that 90 per cent of their new applicants are asylum-seekers.

The influx of asylum-seekers has affected public schools as well. In 2022, the Centre de services scolaire de Montréal received 1,500 new registrations in two months, with the vast majority of these being asylum-seekers who require French language classes. To further complicate issues, fixed addresses are required for school enrollment, although a shortage of affordable housing continues to be an obstacle for many, and families may search for months before finding housing. 

Several community organizations across Montreal have formed a coalition calling on the provincial and federal governments to provide further funding to better assist refugees and asylum-seekers coming to the city. They have called for the lifting of regulations limiting immigration and asylum applicants’ access to services, including French-language classes, subsidized daycare, employment services, and legal support. Asylum-seekers are not eligible for the same aid as other immigrants, and waiting lists to get work permits can stretch to two years. Once in Canada, it can take five years or more to find out if one qualifies for refugee status, and even then only about 50 per cent of people are accepted.  

The surge in refugees and asylum-seekers is not a global problem – it’s a global responsibility. It is imperative that refugees and asylum-seekers are provided with immediate humanitarian care as well as tools to flourish in their asylum countries. As the Quebec and Canadian governments continue to work toward a long-term solution to this recent influx, the well-being of asylum-seekers must be prioritized. The government of Quebec has listed services and resources available for asylum-seekers. Support organizations like Foyer du Monde, a Montreal organization offering temporary housing and support services to asylum-seekers, refugees, or those settling without status, as well as Welcome Hall Mission, the Welcome Collective, and the Centre de pédiatrie sociale de Saint-Laurent. Advocate for a comprehensive and inclusive regularization program that would reduce the barriers for undocumented migrants to obtain status by signing Migrant Rights Network’s petition. You can also attend an action organized by Solidarité sans frontières on March 18 to demand status for all.