Are Haitians coming from the U.S. migrants or refugees?

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A report by Catherine Solyom for the Montreal Gazette.

If the past is any indication, roughly half of the Haitian asylum claimants who have arrived in Quebec over the last few weeks will be rejected, and eventually sent back to Haiti or the U.S.

But acceptance rates over the last few years also suggest that half will be recognized as refugees, a sign that they are not all just economic migrants, says lawyer Eric Taillefer.

Of 412 refugee claims made by Haitians and finalized in 2016, 207 were accepted.

“Their stories are very varied so we can’t put them all in the same basket,” said Taillefer, who has represented several claimants from different countries who have entered from the U.S. since January. “There’s an economic aspect (to the migration) but there is also fear for their physical security, especially because it’s been several years that they haven’t lived in Haiti. So their resettlement and adaptation will be difficult.”

The families showing up at Maison d’Haiti in Montreal-North looking for help finding apartments and furniture while navigating Canada’s complicated refugee protection system certainly fit that picture, says Marjorie Villefranche, the director of the centre that has become a lifeline to Haitians in Montreal.

“What I’m seeing are mostly young people with young families. They arrived in the U.S. years ago and have no links with Haiti anymore and they don’t understand why they have to return to a country they don’t know,” Villefranche said in an interview Tuesday. “And Haiti already has problems absorbing migrants from the Dominican Republic; 150,000 people they don’t know where to put. So if we send them people from Canada and the U.S. what will happen to them?”

In 2013, the Dominican Republic stripped the citizenship from some 300,000 Dominican-born Haitians, leading to a crackdown on the other, more prosperous half of the island it shares with Haiti.

In July, the Dominican government issued a one-year extension to some 230,000 Haitian migrants trying to renew or obtain residency permits. But in the four years since the court ruling, tens of thousands of Haitians were forced to return to makeshift camps on the border or other precarious living conditions.

That said, Villefranche points out that many of the Haitians who have crossed into Canada from the U.S. since June were lured by false information about their prospects here.

Most feared being deported from the U.S. after President Donald Trump announced in May that Haitians’ temporary protected status in the United States, a policy instituted after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, would expire in January, 2018.

PRAIDA, a Quebec government organization tasked with settling refugee claimants in Montreal, said it received 1,674 claimants in July alone, most of whom were Haitian.

According to the Customs and Immigration Union, which represents represents border services and immigration enforcement officers, 400 to 700 mostly Haitian migrants are arriving per week at the border.

Some Haitians, based on misleading WhatsApp and YouTube videos circulating online, came thinking they would automatically be given residency in Canada, with the right to work, Villefranche said.

In fact, Canada’s special status for Haitians was rescinded last summer, putting Haitians at risk of deportation like other nationalities. And since other special protections for Haitians were lifted in March, 2017, the Canada Border Services Agency has deported 296 Haitian nationals; 19 to Haiti, and 277 to the U.S.

“They came with the idea that everything would be great and they would have permanent residence, but that’s false,” said Villefranche, adding she has faith that the Immigration and Refugee Board will properly assess their claims.  “They have to go through the process and they’ll have an answer at the end.”

All of the migrants left everything they owned behind, however, including homes and jobs, to come to Canada with a single suitcase rather than risk deportation from the U.S. “That is desperate,” she said.

Taillefer estimated that given current backlogs at the IRB, it would likely take three to five months for the Haitian claimants to get a decision on their claim, which they could then appeal.

Immigration minister says some claimants will move on to other provinces

In the meantime, Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said the federal immigration authorities will be directing claimants at the border to the province where they wish to settle, alleviating some of the pressure on settlement services in Quebec.

“I am told that there is quite a high number of people who may want to settle in Ontario because they have family there, too,” Weil said.

In Montreal, 2,388 asylum seekers are currently being housed in temporary shelters, including about 700 at the Olympic Stadium. 

Weil has also asked her federal counterparts to speed up the processing of claimants, who are now being given dates for hearings before the IRB in October.

Taillefer said one of the problems the IRB will likely encounter is a lack of Créole interpreters for the hearings, but the IRB could decide to form a specialized team to deal with the high number of claims from Haitian asylum-seekers.

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