An exodus of Haitian migrants seeking asylum at the Canadian border is being fuelled by incomplete and false information spreading like wildfire throughout the community.
Refugee advocates say many of the 58,000 Haitians living in the United States under temporary protection – which was granted after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and exempted them from deportation to the devastated country – began to look at options in May when the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump announced the status would end in January. Attention turned to Canada in June when false rumours spread that the country was automatically welcoming people with temporary protected status (TPS) in the United States.
The effect was quickly felt in Quebec, where the daily arrival of about 50 asylum seekers a month tripled in July. Montreal's Olympic Stadium is now being used as a temporary shelter for up to 1,050 people. Hundreds of Quebeckers rallied at the stadium Sunday to show support for the migrants. An anticipated anti-immigration protest did not happen.
Farrah Larrieux, a Haitian TPS holder and advocate who lives in Florida, said when the Trump administration announced the status would end Haitians were faced with a choice: spend nearly $500 (U.S.) in fees to extend their stay for six months or put the money toward an attempt to get into Canada.
Opportunists quickly popped up advertising Canada was offering a free ride. "There are posts on social media, ads on messaging apps, even Haitian radio hosts telling people they were willing to organize a bus to get them to Canada where they would be welcomed with open arms," said Ms. Larrieux, who was facing deportation in 2010 for overstaying a tourist visa when an earthquake struck Haiti and she received TPS protection. "When you have this kind of chaos, you have people willing to take advantage."
Sophia Cineas, a 31-year-old Haitian woman, was one of hundreds of people who arrived at an unofficial border crossing between upstate New York and Quebec last week. She described how much more welcoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to immigrants than Mr. Trump and how she believed Canada would welcome her. "I cannot stay in the United States and there's no better place than Canada," she said. "I'm doing what I've got to do."
Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the representative in Canada for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), interviewed 30 newly arrived asylum seekers last week, about two-thirds of whom were Haitian. He said many of them appeared to have bad information about how easily they could get established in Canada. "There is an impression that Canada is a more generous country when it comes to refugees, but when you look at the statistics, it's very similar."
In Canada, 52 per cent of Haitian refugee claims were accepted in 2016, compared with 48 per cent in the United States, Mr. Beuze noted, but refugee claims will be tough to make for Haitians who have been living in the United States with protected status. "They have a different profile from the Haitians who normally come to Canada," he said.
Many of the Haitians under TPS permits have been in the United States for years and often arrived with legitimate visitor visas or by clandestine methods. People who want to make asylum claims from within the United States are generally required to make the claim within their first year in the country. Many of the new arrivals in Quebec say they've been living in the United States for five to 10 years.
Most people who have legitimate refugee claims would have likely made them upon arrival in the United States, Mr. Beuze said.
In the first six months of the year, Canada processed 18,306 asylum claims. Official numbers for July are not available, but estimates indicate a big spike, ranging from about 1,100 to 2,500 for the month in Quebec alone. If the pattern continues, the numbers might approach the recent high of 44,640 in 2001, when the rules were more relaxed.
Canada can handle the load, Mr. Beuze said. The UN representative also cautioned against relying too much on projections. He noted Canada expected an influx of Mexican asylum seekers when Ottawa lifted a visa requirement for visits. It didn't happen. This winter, as the number of border-hopping asylum claimants increased exponentially from January to March, many predicted the numbers would explode when the snow melted. Instead, the numbers from April to June stabilized before the July spike.
"You do not always understand the triggers, the push and the pull factors," Mr. Beuze said. "People have different profiles and weigh different factors while making very personal decisions."
The difficulty of claiming refugee status in Canada may become clearer to potential migrants and people may pursue other options to stay in the United States or return home to Haiti, he added.