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asylum seekers

The recent surge in border crossers has forced the province to adopt temporary measures to accommodate new arrivals

A line of asylum seekers who identified themselves as being from Haiti wait to enter into Canada from Roxham Road in Champlain, New York.

Canada is receiving a wave of asylum seekers coming from the United States – a surge not seen in more than a decade. These are people from third countries who landed in the U.S. but are now moving on to Canada.

In Quebec alone, at least 150 people a day are crossing the border at irregular crossings in recent weeks – the bulk of them at one spot in northern New York State. Canada's border guard union has suggested 300 people a day have crossed at times. Canada was already seeing an increase in refugee claimants coming through the United States before the July and August surge.

The influx has forced Quebec and Montreal to adopt temporary measures to accommodate the new arrivals, opening beds in Olympic Stadium and in a shuttered personal-care home and school. The federal government has also shifted resources for border patrol and immigration intake.

Who are they?

Three families that claimed to be from Burundi walk down Roxham Road to cross into Quebec at the U.S.-Canada border in Champlain, N.Y.

The recent daily arrivals are about 70 per cent Haitian nationals. The rest come from around the globe but are most notably from the Middle East and Africa. The bulk of the asylum seekers appear to be made up of families, often with small children, who have, in many cases, been living in the United States for years. A few are simply transiting through the U.S. About half of new arrivals have told Quebec officials they intend to settle in Ontario.

Why are they coming?

President Donald Trump, flanked by Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. David Perdue speaks during the unveiling of legislation that would place new limits on legal immigration on Aug. 2.

Many appear to be motivated by U.S. President Donald Trump's positions on immigration and by the welcoming rhetoric of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In May, the Trump administration announced special temporary protected status would end in January for 58,000 Haitians living in the United States. Haitian community members and immigration experts say rumours have run wild that Canada has an open-door policy for Haitians. It does not.

A first surge last winter was provoked by Mr. Trump's election, his anti-immigration rhetoric and his ban on immigration from some Muslim-majority countries. Dozens of Somalis based in Minnesota entered Manitoba last winter. While the ban only touched six countries, Muslims and hundreds of others from around the globe headed to Quebec. Those arrivals tapered off in Manitoba. In Quebec, they are still coming.

Do they qualify for refugee status?

An asylum seeker holds on to his paperwork as he leaves Olympic Stadium.

Each case is assessed individually for whether people have legitimate fear of persecution, war or other violence in their country of origin. In a normal year, about half of Haitian refugee claimants are rejected both in Canada and the United States. Most Haitians with legitimate refugee claims who lived in the United States could have made successful requests there. Many of the new arrivals will have a hard time convincing Canada they are refugees. Some of the border crossers are recent arrivals from war-torn countries such as Syria who prefer Canada. They will likely have more success.

What are the laws on unauthorized border crossings?

RCMP vehicles are seen down Roxham Road near the Canada-U.S. border in Hemmingford, Que.

While Canada and the United States both have laws making it illegal to enter at unauthorized crossings, neither country has any law blocking people from leaving. In other words, Canada has no power to stop someone from stepping out of the United States. And once they've arrived at unauthorized crossings, Canadian police can't just push asylum seekers back into the United States. This does effectively happen at official border crossings, thanks to the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. The 2004 accord requires asylum seekers to make their claims in whichever country they arrive first but it only applies at authorized entry points.

The countries could change the agreement to close the loophole or change other laws to make leaving more difficult, but neither government has shown any interest in that. Besides, Article 13 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights says "everyone has the right to leave any country."

Canada could theoretically build fences at the most popular crossing points such as the gravel path leading from Champlain, N.Y., to Roxham Road in Hemmingford, Que., but Canada's southern border is 6,416 kilometres long and much of it is forest, field and water. And unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Trudeau shows little interest in building walls to keep asylum seekers out.

Is this a new thing?

Syrian refugees get new winter clothing at Pearson International Airport in Toronto Feb. 29, 2016.

Canada's push to accept Syrian refugees last year led the country to accept a modern-day record of 46,700 refugees. In the first six months of 2017, the country received 18,310 claimants – a pace that would match 2008, when economic issues and violence caused 9,000 Mexicans to claim asylum in Canada. About 87 per cent of them were rejected.

The number of people crossing on land from the United States is unusual, but also not unprecedented. Before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered security crackdowns and immigration-rule changes, it was simpler for refugee claimants to fly to Canada or show up at a Canada-U.S. border post and claim asylum. In the 1990s, there was a phenomenon known as "the Buffalo shuffle" in which failed refugee claimants could repeatedly return to Canadian border posts to make claims. The Safe Third Country Agreement put a stop to the Buffalo shuffle but created the Roxham Road run.

What happens to asylum seekers?

A group of asylum seekers cross the Canadian border at Champlain, N.Y., Friday, Aug. 4, 2017.

Most asylum seekers who hop the border are arrested, detained, identified and assessed and then released pending a hearing. A decade ago, refugee proceedings routinely took three to four years to sort out. Reforms under Stephen Harper streamlined the process, mandating a first hearing within 60 days. Until recently, most new cases were resolved within six months, a timeline likely to be stretched in 2017. Immigration lawyers in Montreal say the 60-day deadline is being broken in about half of cases with the recent surge. Appeals, requests for humanitarian exemptions and removal safety assessments can still ultimately delay deportation.

What financial assistance do asylum seekers receive?

A group of asylum seekers leave Olympic Stadium, which has been set up as a temporary shelter.

Refugee claimants receive basic medical coverage provided by the federal government and, in Quebec, they get emergency shelter, transit fare and a small stipend and money to cover any school fees if they have three or more children. Some refugee claimants in Canada are allowed to work. In Quebec, they can get "last resort special assistance" amounting to $600 a month for a single adult. Many end up staying with friends, family or charitable organizations while they wait for a ruling.

What's next?

Asylum seekers wait to be processed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after crossing the Canada/US border near Hemmingford, Que.

Migration patterns are notoriously difficult to predict. Last year, Canada lifted visa requirements for Mexican visitors and anticipated an upswing in asylum claims, including a projected cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The anticipated Mexican surge has been barely a trickle amounting to fewer than 100 people a month through March. Some refugee advocates and Haitian community leaders in Canada and the United States expect the wave of Haitians to taper off once initial misinformation and panic have subsided. But no one knows for sure and no one knows what steps Mr. Trump might take next.

Sources: UNHCR, The Canadian Press, Reuters, Quebec government, Canadian Council for Refugees