Quebec is gearing up to welcome the children of recent asylum seekers into its classrooms as the province deploys a raft of public services for migrants who have poured across the border in recent months.
The measures aimed at children have become urgent given the profile of those who have sought refuge in Canada: About one third of the 10,000 people who have walked into Quebec from the United States at irregular crossings since the start of the year are under 18, most of them aged 11 and under.
"We're in talks with Montreal school boards to ensure there's room for asylum seekers who are still arriving and those who have already put in requests," Quebec Education Minister Sébastien Proulx said Monday as children across the province began returning to class after the summer break.
The undertaking highlights the challenges behind the broad government effort to house, school and help sustain the high number of asylum claimants who have surged into the province. On Wednesday, Quebec will begin distributing $2.5-million in monthly welfare cheques to about 4,000 claimants. The operation is being carried out at the Montreal convention centre, known as the Palais des congrès.
School boards are also preparing to integrate the newcomers, though children cannot attend school until their families have fixed addresses. Until then, Quebec plans to provide educational activities for children in temporary shelters, including the tent camps near the Canada-U.S. border that are housing the asylum applicants while they're in transition.
The steps to welcome the asylum seekers – overwhelmingly from Haiti – mark their first signs of integration into Canadian life, even though they face uncertainty over whether they will be allowed to remain in the country. The federal government says it is shifting immigration resources to help process thousands of asylum claims, but the system is already backlogged.
Normally, refugee claimants get an interview within 72 hours to determine whether their claim is admissible for consideration; Haitians crossing the border in recent weeks are being given dates with immigration officials in March.
"If an interview that normally takes 72 hours is now happening eight months later, we can already see there's a problem with the system," said Stéphane Handfield, a Montreal immigration lawyer representing several Haitian asylum seekers. "The government doesn't want to call it a crisis, but let's be honest, things are not under control. Delays have exploded."
In the current best-case scenario, he said, applicants could get an answer about their claim from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) by next summer – a year after their arrival – but if they're rejected and turn to an appeals process, it could then take another year. "We're looking at a minimum of two years," Mr. Handfield said.
At the end of July, more than 26,000 cases were already pending at the IRB's refugee protection division, a 95-per-cent increase over July, 2016, according to a tweet by IRB chairman Mario Dion.
Refugee advocates say backlogs take a toll on applicants,who put down roots in Canada.
"There can be terrible human dramas when people are rejected and are deported," said Stephan Reichhold, head of the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes, a Montreal umbrella group serving newcomers. "People become integrated here, they work here, their children go to school and make friends. It's important that the process be done rapidly."
The wait comes as a surprise to many applicants, who had been falsely told they could count on being welcomed as refugees once they set foot in Canada, community groups say. Some of the misinformation came through social media and from people trying to take advantage of the claimants in the United States.
"They're in shock once they arrive here," said Chantal Ismé, board vice-president of the Maison d'Haiti, a community centre helping the asylum seekers. "They came with the impression they would just cross the border and everything would be settled. So they feel despair. They fled one uncertainty for another uncertainty, with the spectre of deportation in the end."
Many left the United States because of warnings by the Trump administration that it would terminate the temporary protected status they had enjoyed since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
In the meantime, the Maison d'Haiti has been helping about 50 people a day find housing, furniture, and to offer guidance as the newcomers confront the unknown about their future. "There's a lot of anguish about the uncertainty," Ms. Ismé said.
One couple from Haiti walked across the border last week from the United States with six children in tow, aged two to 16. The couple is trying to figure out how their children will be schooled in the coming weeks as the family tries to make its way in a new country. For now, they are staying in temporary quarters at the YMCA. Their eligibility interview with immigration officials isn't until March.
Still, the couple said they felt they had no choice but to leave the United States, with the Trump administration's hardening stance against immigration. The family left their home in New York, where they had lived for five years, to head north to Quebec.
"We had no hope left in the United States," the father said on Sunday, three of his children by his side. He asked not to be named before his family's case was decided on. "Here, we are keeping our hopes alive."