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Number of asylum seekers dwindles as Ottawa’s messaging appears to pay off

Three families originally from Burundi walk down Roxham Road to cross into Quebec near Champlain, N.Y., on Aug. 3, 2017.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters

An effort to inform potential asylum-seekers that crossing the border is no free ride to a new Canadian life appears to be working as their numbers continue to rapidly dwindle – but the start of the school year is also playing a role.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is monitoring the reception of asylum seekers at the most popular irregular crossing south of Montreal, says the number of processed claims has plunged to 10-50 on recent days from a peak of several hundred daily arrivals earlier in the summer.

Nearly 8,000 arrivals came in July and the first half of August in Quebec, the bulk of whom were Haitians who are threatened with removal from the United States by the Trump administration. The Quebec government says about 2,700 of them are under 18.

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Explainer: What you need to know about the Quebec asylum seekers

Jean-Nicolas Beuze, Canadian representative for the UNHCR, says while the information campaign has helped, other factors are also at play. The school year started in Quebec last week and will be in full swing in most of North America this week and it's a major factor for migrant people who move around the globe.

"When you see the number of children, it helps explain the reduction," Mr. Beuze said. "We see this everywhere. You don't move with family during the school year unless bombs are falling on your head or you're being individually persecuted."

In recent weeks, the federal government and Haitian community leaders and media have spread word in the United States that asylum claims for Haitians who have lived long-term in that country are unlikely to succeed.

About half of Haitian asylum-seekers have been accepted in Canada in recent years, but those who have lived in the United States for six years or more under the country's temporary protected status (TPS) permits will face questions about why they didn't claim in the United States, hindering their chances.

"I think the message is getting through," said Jean-Ernest Pierre, an immigration lawyer and community radio host in Montreal who has made appearances south of the border lately. "People understand better that nothing is guaranteed. Canada doesn't want Haitians."

Mr. Beuze, whose agency has conducted interviews with asylum claimants, said many are surprised to learn there are long delays for finding housing and getting work permits.

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While conventional wisdom has taken hold that the vast majority of Haitian border crossers were among 50,000 holders of the TPS permit who have lived in the United States for 7-16 years with special permission, Mr. Beuze said more of them may have been just transiting through the United States than initially believed. He could not offer a statistical breakdown, however, nor have federal or provincial officials.

Wracked by a terrible economy, a massive cholera epidemic imported by UN troops, the fallout from a shattering earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Haiti has had an exodus of people looking for a better life. Tens of thousands went to Brazil, Chile and Venezuela after hearing they might find work there. About 40,000 of them started making their way north mostly by land last year according to U.S. Homeland Security and about 10,000 have arrived in the United States through Mexico.

Steve Forester, an immigration policy co-ordinator with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said it is "premature and unwise" for TPS holders to head to Canada right now, but it's a different story for Haitians who more recently landed in the United States and have no status or protection.

He said getting a fair immigration hearing in the United States is increasingly difficult, particularly for those in detention who don't have access to translation and legal services. "It's not insane for people without status to try their luck in Canada, given the Trump administration's general attitude."

Mr. Forester said the struggle to get the Trump administration to extend TPS protection beyond the January deadline "is an uphill battle," but Haitians with status in the United States should stay put for now.

He also said the lifting of the TPS protection in January means holders return to their previous immigration status. They won't all immediately be deported. "Having status in the U.S. will do nothing good for claims in Canada," he said.

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Mr. Beuze said getting good information on the precise origins and reasoning of the Haitian asylum-seekers in Canada has been challenging. Many of them are wary of authority figures and fear accidentally damaging their claims, he said.

Mr. Pierre hosted a public radio town hall for Montreal's Haitian community on Sunday in front of hundreds of people, but he heard surprisingly few queries about the Haitian immigrants from the crowd.

The new arrivals are causing as much controversy among Haitian-Canadians as the wider community, he said. "They're our compatriots, but they've imposed their presence here. People who have lived here for 20 or 30 years are Canadian through and through. Giving welfare to people who have never worked here isn't that popular with them, either."

Mr. Pierre, however, hammered home how dire the situation is in Haiti, given what Mr. Forester described as the "triple-whammy" of earthquake, cholera and hurricane. "People are starving after crops failed with the 2016 hurricane," Mr. Pierre said. "They're just doing what any of us would do."

Video: Trudeau says immigration system is ‘strong’ amid influx of asylum seekers (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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