HEMMINGFORD, Que. — The scene greeting asylum seekers at a popular illegal border crossing point in Quebec on Thursday was vastly changed from that of a few months earlier.
What used to be an unmarked ditch monitored by one or two RCMP patrol cars had turned into a makeshift reception centre in response to the surging number of asylum seekers crossing the border at Hemmingford in the last two weeks.
Folding chairs and bottles of water were available for border crossers in a large white tent as they waited to board a bus to be taken for processing.
Metal barricades kept the media at bay as five or six RCMP officers waited to arrest new arrivals crossing into Quebec from New York.
RCMP Const. Erique Gasse said any suspected criminals would be taken to a detention centre, although the bulk of newcomers are sent to the Lacolle border to file refugee claims.
“Our officers are doing an extraordinary job in the field,” he said in a phone interview. ”They’re patient, they’re professional, they’re Canadian police officers just doing their jobs.”
At a Montreal news conference, Quebec’s immigration minister said the number of people seeking asylum in the province has tripled in the last two weeks.
While there were roughly 50 requests a day between July 1 and July 19, Kathleen Weil said the number has since surged to 150 a day.
She said Quebec had already received 6,500 asylum seekers by the end of June and is on track to have 12,000 by the end of the year.
Weil said the rate of new arrivals is putting a lot of pressure on temporary accommodation resources, which are needed while the Canadian government decides whether each newcomer is eligible to make a refugee claim.
She said the province has asked Ottawa for help in dealing with the volume of new arrivals but ultimately will be able to handle the claims.
“We have a strong, competent and experienced public and community network to deal with this type of situation and will offer dignified and safe care for these people during the processing of their asylum applications,” she said.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard asked the federal government to speed up the claims evaluation process, because most of the cost of caring for the newcomers currently falls to the province.
“The request we have for the federal (government) is to accelerate the treatment of cases to the maximum so that we can quickly know if their (asylum) request is accepted or not so we can better share expenses,” he said in Hebertville-Station, about 200 kilometres north of Quebec City.
His comments came a day after asylum seekers began arriving at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, which has been set up to accommodate as many as 600 people until Sept. 19.
Public Health Minister Lucie Charlebois said the cost of retooling the stadium as a shelter and of added security is $1.5 million. The facility is just one of several temporary sites around the city housing 1,575 asylum seekers as of Thursday.
“It’s not a situation that’s meant to be permanent,” she said, adding the government would reassess next month should the surge not subside.
Most of those arriving at the stadium are of Haitian descent.
That’s because the Trump administration is considering ending a program that granted Haitians so-called “temporary protected status” following the massive earthquake that struck in 2010.
If the program isn’t extended, as many as 60,000 Haitians could be sent back to their homeland.
Marjorie Villefranche of the Maison d’Haiti said the organization started noticing more people about two months ago — with all harbouring the fear of being returned to Haiti.
She said many came inspired by claims on social media about what was awaiting them in Canada: a welcoming place that is easy to enter.
The pitches, in Creole, don’t explain the lengthy refugee process that awaits or the fact there are no guarantees they’ll be allowed to stay.
“Desperate people, they will try everything and I think this is how we see the situation,” Villefranche said. “We are ready to help that population to integrate here if they could stay.”
Villefranche said her group and others stand ready, armed with the experience of the earthquake seven years ago. She estimated about 80 per cent of those who arrived in 2010 ended up staying in Montreal permanently.
For now, the tasks will revolve around filling out forms, organizing papers, finding housing and locating schools for young children, who account for as many as 25 per cent of arrivals.
Liberal MP Marc Miller, speaking on behalf of the federal government, said Canada’s border service agencies have experience dealing with fluctuating volumes of arrivals.
“Our government is committed to offering protection for those fleeing war, persecution and natural disasters without compromising the safety and security of Canadians,” he said at the news conference.
“We know that people will go to extraordinary lengths to seek a safe and peaceful life for themselves and their families.”
He said Ottawa will increase staff and resources to ensure the refugee claimants are processed in a timely manner.
Asylum claimants, he added, will also be ”triaged” so those who do not intend on staying in Quebec can have their files treated in other cities.
Weil said Quebec made the triage request to Ottawa last Friday and some community groups estimate nearly 50 per cent of arrivals leave Montreal for other Canadian cities.
“We think its going to help, it’ll reduce the numbers somewhat,” she said. ’However, we do know the largest Haitian community is in Quebec, so we have to work on all fronts.”
— With files from Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal
– Follow @Lowrie219 on Twitter.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press