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Federal decision to ease pressure of asylum seekers on Quebec raises concern at other destinations

A federal decision to relieve pressure on Quebec by sending asylum seekers to other parts of Canada is raising concern at likely destinations that they too will need help dealing with the influx.

The federal government has agreed with Quebec to quickly move border-crossers who intend to settle in other parts of Canada to those locations while their immigration cases are resolved instead of expecting them to wait nearly two years for hearings in Montreal. The major destination will likely be the Toronto region and, to a lesser extent, other major Canadian cities.

The Quebec government estimates up to 40 per cent of the 6,000 arrivals so far in 2018 have plans to leave Quebec. Many already leave the province on their own. While Ontario received 40 per cent of Canada’s immigrants in 2016 and has a robust system for absorbing them, a new rush will still cause problems, particularly in Toronto, where housing is expensive and scarce.

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“It’s never a blip. More people mean more pressure on the system. Our shelter system is at the bursting point. The money has to come from somewhere to support them,” said Debbie Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants.

Francisco Rico-Martinez of Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre estimates as many as 7,000 Nigerians who entered the country at unofficial border crossings in Quebec have already come to Toronto in the past seven months. “A lot of this change has already happened,” he said. “We have been working with the city of Toronto and making plans for months now.”

Ottawa also agreed to add $74-million to the claim-processing system and to quiz asylum seekers immediately upon arrival on their willingness to go to regions of Quebec experiencing labour shortages. Officials from Ottawa and Quebec will also meet again at the province’s request for $146-million to cover bills from last year.

The decision announced on Wednesday night followed several days of bickering between Ottawa and Quebec, which accused the federal government of abandoning the province to deal with asylum seekers.

While the federal government is responsible for refugees, it is provinces, cities and service organizations that provide and pay for most services during the prehearing stage. The backlog for hearings is about 22 months.

Recent months have seen a shift in the profile of people crossing the border at the unofficial makeshift crossing on Roxham Road in southern Quebec. The majority are now English-speaking Nigerians who obtained visitor visas to the United States and are instead transiting to Roxham Road to get into Canada, according to both levels of government. The United States has recently been granting about 13,000 visitors visas a month to Nigerians. David Heurtel, Quebec’s Immigration Minister, said he received assurances from Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale that the issue will be raised with his U.S. counterparts.

Last year, about 20,000 people crossed the border at Roxham Road. A large portion of them were Haitians, many of whom spoke French and feared the loss of a protected status they had in the United States. In 2017, Haitians had a 25-per-cent acceptance rate for their claims, down from the average level of about 50 per cent. By the end of last year, federal officials said nine in 10 cases were being rejected.

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Nigerians had about a 49.5-per-cent success rate in claiming asylum in Canada last year, but Quebec immigration officials pointed out this week that success rates of claims tend to drop with border crossers who appear to have a wide-range of motivations from economic hopes to persecution.

Still, Stephan Reichhold, who represents an umbrella organization of Quebec immigrant and refugee-service groups, said many Nigerians have good reason to flee the country with armed insurgency and a record of human rights abuse. Many are also well equipped to adapt to western life.

“They are very educated, often engineers and doctors, and have a bit of money to get here,” said Mr. Reichhold.

Ms. Douglas noted Ontario is already seeing irregular border-crossers from Quebec coming into the Ontario system. “It’s not surprising English-speakers would come to Ontario. We have many ethnic communities here and a very mature service sector.”

Some Nigerians have also made their way to Calgary, drawn by Canada’s second-largest Nigerian community and the possibility of jobs in the petroleum industry, according to Fariborz Birjandian, head of the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society. About 60 have arrived at his agency alone in the past two months after only an occasional arrival in previous years.

Mr. Birjandian said he has been pushing local officials and higher levels of government to prepare for an increase of arrivals. Calgary doesn’t have as robust a system for dealing with unexpected migrants as other large urban centres, he said. “Having to organize reception is a new thing for us,” he said. “I think because the numbers were not significant, a lot of people thought they could ignore it. Now we need to get organized and get funding in place.”

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Still, the steps brought relief in Quebec, which last year used schools and Montreal’s Olympic Stadium among dozen locations to temporarily house asylum seekers. “It doesn’t really matter who pays. They’re coming and we have to deal with it. Doing politics on the backs of refugees is no way to go about it,” Mr. Reichhold said.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that Stephan Reichhold, who represents an organization of Quebec immigrant and refugee-service groups, doubts the validity of Nigerian asylum claims. It was in fact Quebec government officials who pointed out many asylum claimants cross the border for a variety of reasons not limited to persecution. This is a corrected version.
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