The Canadian government, on Monday, announced new measures to deal with the steady stream of asylum seekers crossing into Quebec from the United States, including an outreach mission in Nigeria and an acceleration of work permit processing times for those awaiting an asylum decision.
“Coming across the border in a way that seeks to circumvent our procedures is no free ticket to Canada,” said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who was joined at a press conference in Montreal by Transport Minister Marc Garneau and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.
“All Canadian laws are and will continue to be enforced and all of our international obligations are and will continue to be respected,” he added.
The announcement comes in the wake of a fresh wave of attacks from Conservatives about how the federal government is dealing with the influx of migrants and amid calls from Quebec to do more to assist the province in the handling of new arrivals.
Last month, Quebec’s immigration minister said that more than 6,000 people entered Quebec irregularly from January to mid-April of this year—three times as many as during the same period in 2017. He expected the number to increase significantly as the weather warms during the summer.
Garneau said that approximately 2,500 asylum seekers had arrived in Quebec from the United States in April alone.
The majority of these asylum seekers, government officials say, are Nigerians with recently issued U.S. visitor visas, reports CTV News.
Hussen says they see the United States as merely a transit point on the way to their actual destination: Canada.
Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, enacted since 2004, those seeking asylum must do so in the country where they first arrived. This prohibits people coming from the United States from seeking asylum at an official port of entry in Canada like a land border crossing or airport.
But there is a loophole: it does not apply at illegitimate border crossings, meaning Canada has to process the asylum claims of people making “irregular” crossings.
The government announced that Hussen will be travelling to Nigeria this month for discussions with officials, and said that three Canadian officials have already been sent to Lagos to work with American visa officials.
Michelle Rempel, the Conservative party’s immigration critic, called the measures announced today “a Band-Aid approach” that could worsen the situation and stoke a public backlash.
“This is unfair, unsustainable and uncompassionate,” she said.
Conservatives have argued for the Safe Third Country Agreement to be applied to the entirety of the Canada-U.S. border.
“We wouldn’t have to go to countries like Nigeria to tell people not to come if the loophole didn’t exist in the first place,” Rempel said. “The money and time expended on these efforts could be better spent to make the immigration system more functional for those playing by the rules.”
Hussen said that, while it is “always wise and prudent to look at ways to refresh the agreement,” he is not having anything more than “regular discussions” with his American counterparts about modifying the agreement.
Goodale told Parliament last week that Canada is in “exploratory” talks with the United States to re-open the agreement.
The government says that it has speeded up the processing of work permits for asylum seekers as they await a decision on their asylum applications.
More than 12,500 work permits have been approved for asylum seekers arriving in Quebec since April 2017, he said.
Hussen said he expects the government’s backlog of asylum cases will be eliminated by 2019.
The federal government announced last week that it would be building temporary housing for up to 520 people at the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing in Quebec, where the RCMP says it has intercepted most of the irregular migrants entering Quebec.
Rempel described the planned housing as being, in effect, “a refugee camp.”
Earlier this year, it said that it would also be setting up a “triage system” in Quebec to ask asylum seekers where in Canada they are ultimately hoping to stay, in order to ease pressure on the province.
Goodale said that officials from Ontario, which is expected to be the preferred destination of many of these migrants, met with their counterparts in Quebec last week to look at ways that they can better prepare for the influx of arrivals.
In the 2018 federal budget, the federal government pledged $173.2 million for border security, which will be used, in part, to hire new Immigration and Refugee Board officials to speed up the wait times for an asylum hearing.