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Canada sees growing exodus of refugees fleeing over US border

Rising Islamophobia in US blamed, with Canadian PM facing questions over whether US remains a safe country for asylum seekers
Women from Sudan after they illegally crossed the Canada-US border near Hemmingford, Quebec, 26 February (AFP)

TORONTO, Canada – Canadian government officials are still looking for answers to the spike in the number of asylum seekers pouring into Canada illegally from the United States in search of protection.

The number of refugee claimants crossing into Canada from the US has increased substantially in recent months.

Reuters reported that 4,000 people filed refugee claims in Canada between 1 January and 21 February, up from 2,500 people in the same period last year, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.

That includes refugee claimants who made applications both at official border crossings, and after crossing the border illegally.

Many of those who crossed the border illegally are originally from countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen - all Muslim majority nations on US President Donald Trump's controversial executive order banning refugees from travelling to the US.

Entire families have crossed the border on foot, and parents have been seen carrying strollers and luggage through the snow. Some were living in the US for years, while others were only in the US for a few weeks, before deciding to make the journey north.

Gloria Nafziger, the refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Canada, recently interviewed 30 refugee claimants in Manitoba, in central Canada, who had crossed the Canada-US border without authorisation in recent weeks.

“All of the people we spoke to without fail were Muslim and all of them we spoke to without fail had never intended to come to Canada when they began their journeys,” Nafziger told Middle East Eye.

“They all had the intention of going to the United States and working, living or claiming asylum in the United States.”

Refugees from the US to enter Canada at Emerson, Manitoba, 26 February
Future insecure in the US

Nafziger explained that while motivations varied among people, many said a rising climate of Islamophobia pushed them to leave the US.

“People increasingly felt more uncomfortable about their opportunities to settle and integrate and to be welcome in the United States. As Muslims particularly, they all felt threatened and didn’t feel secure in their future,” she said.

We are an open and welcoming country and we continue to demonstrate that we truly believe that diversity is a source of strength

-Justin Trudeau, Canadian PM

In 2015, almost 70,000 people were admitted to the US as refugees, according to the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS granted an additional 26,124 people affirmative asylum that same year, while 8,246 people were granted asylum defensively by the Department of Justice.

Affirmative asylum refers to a person who applies for asylum while not in proceedings to be removed from the US; defensive asylum refers to applications that are made while individuals are subject to removal proceedings or detention.

Applicants who make their US asylum claims while in detention are more than five times as likely to have it be rejected, according to the American Immigration Council, a non-profit that works to ensure immigrants have access to fair judicial processes.

The US asylum process is also lengthy. It can take years until a decision is made; affirmative asylum applicants wait two years on average, while defensive asylum applicants wait an average of three years.

“The backlogs and delays can cause prolonged separation of refugee families, leave family members abroad in dangerous situations, and impede the asylum seeker’s access to pro bono counsel,” the group said.

Last year, the US immigration courts and asylum systems had more than 620,000 backlogged cases pending, the AIC found.

“People are afraid of finding themselves in a situation where they might not have access to an equitable system,” Jean-Nicolas Beuze, Canadian representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), told Reuters.

Travel ban adds to fears

That fear has been compounded by confusion over President Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration barring entry to the US to nationals for six, Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia.

The US president signed a revised version of the travel ban on Monday, removing Iraq from the list of countries subjected to the entry restrictions. Law and civil liberty organisations have denounced the order and pledged to challenge it in court.

The Canadian prime minister, meanwhile, has been under pressure to speak out against the travel ban, and US immigration policies more generally.

Justin Trudeau was asked in the House of Commons this week whether he believed the US remains a safe country for refugees.

While he did not answer the question directly, he said that Canadians expect Ottawa to work with Washington to protect and promote economic growth, and “stand up for the values and principles of which Canadians are rightly so proud”.

“We are an open and welcoming country and we continue to demonstrate that we truly believe that diversity is a source of strength,” Trudeau said.

John Kelly, the US secretary of homeland security, is expected to be in Ottawa this month to meet with his Canadian counterpart, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, and discuss the situation at the border.

Calls to withdraw refugee deal

Meanwhile, Canadian human rights groups have renewed calls for Canada to rescind the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement.

The 2004 deal forces refugee claimants to apply for protection in the first country they land, either the US or Canada. That means that most refugee claimants who try to enter Canada from the US cannot make refugee claims in Canada at a designated Canada-US border crossing.

Refugee claimants can get around that restriction, though, by making their application once they are already in Canadian territory.

“Men, women and children are enduring long walks in freezing temperatures to cross from the US into Canada. They’re making these risky treks on foot because the [STCA] would turn them away at regular border crossings,” wrote the Council of Canadians, a non-profit that works on social issues, in a letter asking Ottawa to scrap the agreement.

The group is urging Canada to welcome individuals fleeing the US as refugees on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Signage warns visitors that entry across US-Canada border at this point is prohibited, February 22, Hemmingford (AFP)
Risky journeys

According to government figures obtained by the Canadian Press, the rise in refugee claims made inside Canada began in November 2015, shortly after Trudeau was elected prime minister.

That’s approximately one year before Donald Trump was elected US president.

The increase in claimants crossing the border illegally is being felt strongest in Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec and British Columbia.

Canada’s western-most province has seen a 60 percent increase in the number of refugee claimants in the past year, with most applicants originally from Iraq’s Kurdish region and Afghanistan, CP reported.

So far this winter, two refugee claimants from Ghana suffered severe frostbite and had several fingers and toes amputated after trudging through a snow-covered field into Manitoba.

A woman, who told officials she was from Sudan, was taken into custody by Canadian police after crossing into Quebec from New York state in mid-February with her four children, according to a Reuters photo taken on the border.

A Syrian couple and their young child, who was being pushed across the border in a stroller, were also detained after they crossed into the town of Hemmingford, Quebec, last month.

The couple told Canadian news outlet Global News that they had been in Los Angeles for two years after originally coming to the US on a student visa. They decided to come to Canada after giving up on the US asylum system.

The residents of Hemmingford, a small border town about 50 minutes south of Montreal, held a meeting last Sunday to discuss what they could do to help the asylum seekers coming over from the US.

Similarly, residents of Emerson, Manitoba, across the border from North Dakota, asked the government for help last month to deal with the influx in asylum seekers coming into their small town.

Canada donated $30,000 this month to Emerson’s volunteer fire department, after town officials requested financial support from the government to help them respond to the waves of refugee claimants.

“We obviously need to make sure that all Canadian laws are being properly and effectively enforced, and that is in fact the case. Canadian law is being enforced in every case,” Public Safety Minister Goodale recently told reporters.

The federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), is responsible for enforcing order inside Canada, so RCMP officers are the first point of contact for most refugee claimants who enter Canada illegally.

After being detained, asylum seekers will be transferred to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers, who then conduct a preliminary interview. If asylum seekers make an application for refugee protection, they will in all likelihood be released pending a hearing with Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board.

Goodale said the RCMP and CBSA “have made some re-allocations of resources internally to cope with the numbers” of illegal border crossings.

Ottawa is collecting and analysing information about who the asylum seekers are and why they are coming into Canada, Goodale added.

Access to a fair asylum process

Meanwhile, Nafziger said that many of the factors pushing refugee claimants into Canada existed before Trump’s election, including the ability to have access to a fair asylum process.

“Access to a fair hearing becomes increasingly more of a question mark when executive orders are introduced,” she said, referring to the travel ban.

She explained that while the executive order raises questions as to whether asylum requests from individuals from the six countries impacted will be allowed to proceed, a bigger concern for many is whether they will be able to reunite with family members they left behind.

Nafziger said if Canada insists on maintaining the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, it “needs to ensure that refugees have access to a fair asylum process in the United States”.

“They must also insist that the United States abide by and respect the UN Refugee Convention and intentional law so that refugees in the United States are treated fairly and not subjected to harsh treatment in the asylum process.” 

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