MONTREAL — Eric, an asylum seeker from southern Nigeria, crossed illegally into Quebec last February from the United States after leaving Africa to escape the threat of armed herdsmen.
He says the herdsmen from the north of the country threaten southern farmers and sometimes murder them.
“A lot of killing has been going on,” he told The Canadian Press during a break from French-language classes he is taking in Montreal.
The 35-year-old didn’t want to use his real name out of fear it could negatively affect his hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
“The herdsmen go to the community and they can slaughter as many civilians as they want,” he said. “We don’t know who is sponsoring them and the government isn’t doing anything about it.”
Eric is one of 7,612 people who crossed illegally into the country during the first four months of the year, with 96 per cent of them entering Quebec, primarily through Roxham Road, a paved clearing at the forested border
In 2017, thousands of Haitians fled the United States for Montreal, but Nigerians make up a large number of would-be refugees crossing into Quebec this year, according to authorities and community organizers.
The increasing number of asylum seekers from Nigeria — who mostly speak English instead of French — is helping to make immigration a top issue ahead of October’s provincial election.
Both of the major opposition parties — the Parti Quebecois and the Coalition Avenir Quebec — argue the governing Liberals have failed to properly integrate newcomers by, among other things, not ensuring they learn French.
The Coalition wants to decrease immigration to the province by 10,000 people a year while the PQ has called for a full review of Quebec’s immigration policies.
Opposition parties speak of high unemployment rates among immigrants and cite statistics that indicate only a third of newcomers register for free French courses and a third of those abandon their studies or just never show up.
Anait Aleksanian, head of a community centre that offers free, government-subsidized French courses for immigrants, says a lack of resources is not the problem.
“It’s never happened that we ask the (government) — that we tell them we have registrations for French courses and we are told the money isn’t there,” she said.
Immigrants can take courses in the morning, at night, on the weekend and even at work, she said.
“We need to raise awareness and explain that if you want to integrate, you need to take the French courses,” she added.
Premier Philippe Couillard says he’s been told the majority of the recent asylum seekers who have crossed illegally into Quebec don’t want to stay in the province, but would prefer to move to more English-speaking parts of the country.
“The federal government has to help people move where they want to settle,” Couillard said. “They need to also quicken the pace of treating asylum claims.
“And they need to travel to the countries where these people are coming from and say that crossing illegally into Canada is not the right formula for immigration.”
Back at Aleksanian’s centre, Eric, who made the journey to Quebec with his wife and two kids, said he wants to work in Montreal — as soon as he can speak French.
He was supposed to have a hearing on June 1 in front of the refugee board but, like most refugee applicants, his case was “postponed indefinitely,” meaning he could be in Canada for years before he learns his fate.
Sitting next to him was David — also not his real name — a 74-year-old Nigerian who has been waiting eight years to settle his status in Canada and eventually bring his wife and six children to the country.
“In my case I tell them to forget about my age,” said David, who used to be a taxi inspector in Nigeria’s Imo state. ”I am still strong, I can still work. I don’t like to be given something. We are studious people and we are hard-working. We like to be on our own.”
Both men are on government assistance but were visibly uncomfortable admitting it.
Eric, who comes from Edo state, received a master’s degree in Britain and used to be a banker in Nigeria.
“The Nigeria country is very hostile,” Eric said, adding that someone who makes it there can make it anywhere. “That’s the nature of the country. We are very determined.”
Southern Nigerians are very ambitious, David said.
“We like to struggle, we like education and to bring up our children to have a better life than we did,” he said.
“We don’t like to beg.”