Canada Sees Unprecedented Surge Of Haitian Asylum Seekers

In recent weeks, Quebec has seen an unprecedented surge of predominantly Haitian asylum seekers entering the province from the United States – in part due to fears regarding changes in immigration policy under the Trump administration – prompting the opening of a temporary housing centre in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium.

According to Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), 18,310 asylum applications have been placed so far in 2017, already close to the 2016 total of 23,895. The government-funded refugee program PRAIDA received 1,174 applications from asylum seekers in July, up 552% from the 180 received in July 2016. Quebec is currently receiving 150 claims per day and has processed 6,505 claims in the past six months.

PRAIDA spokesperson Francine Dupuis, told Radio-Canada the number of asylum seekers entering the country was “way more intense than what we’re used to seeing.”

The increase in asylum seekers has prompted PRAIDA to open Montreal’s Olympic Stadium to temporarily house many refugees while their claims are processed. While it is unclear why the pace of arrivals has picked up in recent days, the spread of rumours about Canada being a potential refuge for asylum seekers has likely played a role, along with Canada’s strong Haitian community, particularly in Quebec.

After many disasters and humanitarian crises in Haiti – a devastating 2010 earthquake, a cholera outbreak soon after, and a hurricane in 2016 – the U.S. gave many Haitians temporary protected status (TPS), which allowed them to live and work in the U.S. while they were not able to stay in Haiti. This program was previously renewed every 18 months, however, President Trump’s former Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, extended the program only until January 2018, stating that by that time, Haitians living in the U.S. should have made arrangements to return to Haiti, claiming that Haiti had made “progress.” The cancellation of the program would affect almost 60,000 Haitian asylum seekers in the U.S.

In an open letter to Kelly, many charities – including the American Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, and Oxfam America – stated that Haiti was “in no position to reintegrate more than 50,000 Haitians” after the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew.

Fears of deportation have prompted the surge into Canada particularly in unpatrolled and unofficial points along the border. This is due to an agreement between Canada and the U.S. that states that refugees must apply for asylum in the first country they arrive in. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police intercepted 3,350 people crossing the border from upstate New York into Quebec in 2017. As many Haitians have ‘put down roots’ in the U.S. they do not want to return to a country of poverty, poor living and working conditions, and violence. Many also have U.S.-born children and other family members that they risk being separated from.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated that Canada is always open to immigrants, but also emphasized the need for “migration to Canada to be done in an orderly fashion; there’s border checkpoints and border controls that we need to make sure are respected.”

While Canada is able to temporarily house the refugees and process their applications, there is no guarantee the refugees will be able to stay in Canada. In the U.S., Kelly has indicated that there would still be an evaluation of Haiti and the program to determine if TPS needs to be extended. At present, an extension of the program would be the most beneficial solution to this issue, as it would allow Haiti more time to prepare for an influx of citizens and would also allow time for Haitians living in the U.S. to make their own decisions and arrangements. The opportunity to become citizens of either the U.S. or Canada could also be provided, although the backlog of immigration cases in both countries may prove difficult.

Refugees have to want to return to Haiti, which will only be possible if Haiti is able to adequately recover from the natural and humanitarian disasters, the rise in poverty, and the increase of violence. Haitian refugees need an assurance of stability from Haiti before they are willing to return.

Ashika Manu