Asylum seekers rush the border

Posted by admin on Sep 24th, 2007

TheStar.com – Canada. September 24, 2007

Clad in a soaked windbreaker, with everything she owned in a blue backpack, Jessica plodded seven hours in drenching rain along a dark Vermont highway, following the lights to what she hoped would be asylum in a country more welcoming than the United States. Sneaking around the lighted border post, the 27-year-old Salvadoran made it into Quebec undetected, where she found a cab that would get her to a bus station – and from there to a train and Toronto.

Jessica arrived Sept. 9, part of a growing wave of asylum seekers taking advantage of unmanned or lightly guarded border crossings to enter Canada, some helped by smugglers who charge $300 (U.S.) for a map from mapquest.com.

The influx of asylum seekers bypassing airport and land controls since mid-summer has helped swell applications at immigration offices and slow the wait for initial processing from one week to six.

It’s a slap in the face to both Ottawa and Washington, who implemented the Safe Third Country Agreement in 2004 to require asylum seekers to be processed only in the first country of landing.

Migrants who arrive and make a refugee claim in the U.S. aren’t allowed to cross the border and make a second claim in Canada.

The law curbed border-point claims and helped clear the backlog at the Immigration and Refugee Board – until now. Claims are creeping up as desperate people resort to desperate measures, for protection or simply a better life.

It’s not known how many have sneaked through the porous border to file claims, but refugee advocates say the old backlog has re-emerged.

Jessica, a university graduate who asked that her last name not be printed for fear of jeopardizing her application, said she was fleeing threats from her female partner’s ex-husband when she left El Salvador, entering the U.S. on a visitor’s visa. Five months later, her visa expiring, she learned Canada might accept a claim based on persecution involving sexual orientation. When she arrived at Immigration’s Etobicoke office to make an inland refugee claim on Sept. 11, the earliest appointment available was Oct. 22.

Until they’re processed, refugee claimants, often destitute, have no access to government language classes, housing and work permits.

“There has been a huge increase in requests from people looking for beds,” says Debbie Hill-Corrigan, executive director of Sojourn House, which gets 20 calls a day. “All of the refugee shelters are full. All of our new clients are now scheduling appointments into late November and December to file their claims with immigration.”

Sojourn House is working with other shelters to find more spaces. City-owned shelters set aside about 100 beds for refugees; the overflow may end up at regular shelters.

Maura Lawless, manager of Toronto’s hostel operations, says the city has been monitoring the situation since late July, when frontline staff spotted a sudden surge.

“We have the ability to add on motels in our shelter system to deal with this kind of surge, but it would become a problem if the trend continues,” she warned.

Toronto refugee advocate Francisco Rico-Martinez says the longer waiting time is “unsettling” for refugees and expensive for taxpayers.

“It delays their entire integration and settlement into the society. And it costs the governments more money to keep them in homeless shelters than hearing their claims and giving them the papers so they can move on with their lives.”

Lida, her husband and two children have been staying at a Kingston Rd. motel since Aug. 27, after crossing the border via a Quebec-Vermont border town. The family lived for seven years in Florida, where they failed to get asylum.

The 38-year-old Colombian says since spring, word has spread among undocumented migrants in the U.S. about easy routes into Canada, and smugglers advertise they can help skirt the Safe Third Country Agreement rules.

“We heard about the routes, asked people about it and printed out the map from the Internet. We just came by ourselves,” says Lida, who is set to file a claim on Oct. 16.

The agreement was intended to tighten up border controls in the post-9/11 era, but Janet Dench, of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says the rise in human smuggling shows such regulations force claimants to stay under the radar.

The agreement is enforced only at official “ports of entry,” leaving many cross-border roads without an office. “Ottawa requires people to appear at the port of entry, not just cross the streets,” says Anna Pape of Canada Border Services.

“It’s quite clear that what we have in place now has increased the exploitation of refugees in the hands of some unscrupulous people who realized the barriers (set by the Safe Third Countries pact) and found ways to profit from it,” Dench says.

The claims surge is compounded by the fact certain groups are exempt, including those from countries where Canada has a moratorium on deportations (Afghanistan, Burundi, Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Liberia, Rwanda and Zimbabwe).

The exemption extends to Mexicans, who don’t need a visa to come to Canada.

They, with hundreds of Haitians and others, have flocked here because of growing American hostility to undocumented immigrants.

Windsor has reportedly had an influx of 200 Mexican refugees in little more than a week.

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