Canada is preparing for new waves of asylum seekers from the United States, a trend local groups say is being fuelled by the Trump administration’s recent decisions to end visa protection for foreign nationals from countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.
Thousands of asylum seekers – many of whom were from Haiti – have already walked across the border into the province of Quebec without visas since the start of the year to make asylum claims in Canada.
On November 20, the Trump administration announced it would lift Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Haitian nationals, who will now have 18 months – until July 22, 2019 – to formalise their status in the US or leave the country.
That decision will lead to a new wave of arrivals at the US-Canada border, said Frantz Andre of the Non-Status Action Committee, a community group in Montreal that supports newcomers from Haiti.
“The new wave has already started,” Andre told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
Asylum seekers already living in the US cannot make their claims for protection in Canada at a formal border crossing because of a bilateral agreement between the two countries, the Safe Third Country Agreement.
That deal makes it impossible for asylum seekers who first land in the US, and whose demands for protection are denied, to seek asylum in Canada, and vice-versa.
That has pushed families to cross into Canada on foot; once they are in the country, they can have their asylum claim heard.
According to Andre, while the Canadian government has said it is preparing to handle a new influx of irregular border crossings, the system is still “improvised”.
“We’re again denouncing this lack of a system to treat each request … in a way that will be efficient and really give a chance to the asylum seeker,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Currently, that’s not the case.”
437,000 TPS visa-holders
In the US, TPS visas were extended to foreign nationals living in the country who the government decided could not safely return to their home countries due to war, violence, natural disasters and other reasons.
As of October, 437,000 foreign nationals from 10 countries held TPS immigration status.
This week, Elaine Duke, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announced the US had determined that Haitians who received TPS coverage after a 2010 earthquake devastated the country and led to a humanitarian crisis, could safely return home.
“Significant steps have been taken to improve the stability and quality of life for Haitian citizens, and Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens,” the department said in a statement.
“Haiti has also demonstrated a commitment to adequately prepare for when the country’s TPS designation is terminated.”
The Haiti decision comes after the US announced it would lift TPS coverage for about 2,500 Nicaraguans, who will now have until January 5, 2019, to leave the country.
About 57,000 Hondurans with TPS visas are also living in limbo, as the US government said it would extend their coverage until July while it makes a final decision on their coverage under the programme.
The US government created uncertainty in Haitian communities in the US earlier this year when it hinted that TPS may be cancelled for Haitians as early as January 2018.
As rumours swirled about pending deportations, thousands of Haitians fled to the Canada-US border.
More than 5,500 people crossed into Quebec without permits in August, many of them Haitians, according to Canadian police figures.
Overall, more than 15,000 people have crossed the border irregularly to claim refugee status in Canada so far this year, Reuters reported.
“Under the law, anyone claiming asylum in Canada has the right to due process,” said Remi Lariviere, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the federal department of immigration.
“However, there are no guarantees that an asylum seeker will be allowed to stay in Canada at the end of this process,” Lariviere told Al Jazeera in an email.
In September, 5,390 asylum seekers crossed into Canada irregularly, according to data collected by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), an independent body that rules on asylum and refugee claims.
Of the 177 refugee claims that were finalised that month, 114 were accepted, IRB figures show. That’s an acceptance rate of 64.4 percent.
A tweet posted by Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, earlier this year also gave many families hope that they would easily be granted asylum once they reached Canada
“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you,” Trudeau wrote.
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) January 28, 2017
However, the newcomers quickly saw they would have to begin a new and lengthy immigration process on the Canadian side of the border.
“These people find themselves in an overloaded [immigration] system,” Andre said.
Canada ended its temporary deportation protection – known as a Temporary Suspension of Removals – for Haitians in 2014, citing improved conditions in the country.
Since then, acceptance rates for Haitian nationals’ asylum claims in Canada have remained low.
In 2016, only 50 percent of finalised asylum applications were granted to Haitian claimants, up from 40 percent in 2015, according to IRB figures.
Andre told Al Jazeera that activists are calling for Canada to give refugee claimants two years to properly prepare and file their applications.
That will allow the government to set up a better system, he said, and “take away some of the anguish and the stress” families are feeling as they navigate the immigration system.
No ‘free ticket’
When they cross into Canada, asylum seekers are first intercepted by the RCMP, Canada’s federal police.
When they say they want to apply for asylum or refugee status, they will be transferred to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) for an interview on their eligibility.
If deemed eligible, they will then be released pending an interview with the IRB. Asylum seekers can prove a need for protection based on several criteria, including religious, racial or political persecution.
Gloria Nafziger, a refugee campaigner at Amnesty International Canada, told Al Jazeera the human rights group expects “ongoing arrivals” at the border, but “it’s just impossible to know how large that [number is] going to get”.
She said the arrivals appear to be fuelled by US immigration policy announcements, “which make people feel insecure”.
“They look for options, and Canada is one of those options,” Nafziger said.
Amnesty is calling on Canada to rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement, which would allow people to make asylum claims at a formal border crossing and avoid potential dangers of crossing on foot, she said.
“Particularly as winter comes and people may try to take more dangerous routes into Canada, the risks increase substantially,” Nafziger said.
After the first major waves of asylum seekers began arriving, Ottawa sent MPs to the US to discourage would-be refugee claimants – especially those from Haiti and Nicaragua, who have been impacted by the TPS decisions – from attempting to come to Canada.
That outreach appears to be continuing and Lariviere said Ottawa is “in continuous contact” with the US government on this issue.
He said the federal government is “aware that the potential exists for more people crossing the border”.
“To be clear, entering illegally is not a ‘free ticket’ into Canada,” Lariviere said.
“There are rigorous immigration and customs rules to be followed – and make no mistake – we enforce them to safeguard our communities against security risks.”
David Heurtel, Quebec immigration minister, is expected to attend a meeting with representatives of the federal government on Thursday in Ottawa to discuss the issue.
While he told French-language Montreal newspaper La Presse that Quebec “does not expect a new wave [of asylum seekers] right away”, Heurtel said the province “will do everything [it] can to limit a surprise”.