Quebec’s unique resettlement program for asylum seekers feeling pressure with increase of migrants crossing from U.S.
MONTREAL—They arrive with bulging suitcases, carrying infants in car seats, often with little more than a backpack and a shaky grasp of the language and the land. They are fleeing war, despots and persecution in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere for a better life in Canada.
It is a classic refugee tale with a Trumpian twist that has asylum seekers fleeing the land of liberty in fear of deportation, or using easy-to-obtain American tourist visas only to reach the northern beacon across the border.
In the first two months of 2017, more than 1,100 people had arrived not by presenting themselves to border officers at a controlled crossing, but by entering the country on foot through a breach in the Canada-United States border to avoid forcible return under Canadian law.
According to the Canada Border Services Agency, Quebec accounted for nearly 700 of the total cases in which the RCMP intercepted “irregular” asylum seekers.
Upon entry, they are arrested and shackled first by awaiting Mounties, then processed and placed into what is becoming an increasingly burdened system.
For those with no family or friends to take them in, the next stop is the first time in the long journey when they can truly rest their heads. The YMCA shelter in downtown Montreal, near the former home of the Montreal Canadiens, is the place some asylum-seekers meet what they describe as their first Canadian family.
The members of this revolving clan speak different tongues and have endured different traumas, but they’ve all arrived with the same desperate hope to start over.
Access to the facilities is restricted to employees and clients of the YMCA, and officials refused a request to tour the building and observe its operations. Instead, the Star spoke to former refugees who had participated in the programs, as well as people familiar with how they work.
Gabriel Mujimbere spent six weeks at the bottom of a YMCA bunk bed when he made a refugee claim in 2015. The HIV/AIDS activist and openly gay young man fled his native Burundi at his family’s insistence, fearful of the laws against homosexuality. For the last two years the country has seen rampant political violence and human rights abuses.
He was far from home and was further still from what he expected when he and a colleague made their asylum claim at the end of a week-and-a-half training session in Montreal.
“I thought if we were lucky we would be housed somewhere in a dormitory, in a camp somewhere,” said Mujimbere, now 28.
Thousands of asylum-seekers each year have benefited from this Quebec government program that has been operating since 2010 but remains unique in Canada. Here, staff offer refugees not only emergency shelter with hundreds of beds but also on-site counselling, psychological services and advice about navigating the dizzying new world of forms and lineups and interviews that all refugee claimants face.
The Regional Program for the Settlement and Integration of Asylum Seekers (better known by its French-language acronym, PRAIDA) is a $6-million-a-year program founded on a simple idea.
“It’s like an investment,” said Francine Dupuis, the program’s assistant director general. “You put a little bit of money in at the beginning, but instead of having people deteriorating in their mental and physical health, they can start to adjust faster to the new society.”
But the increasing demand is starting to strain resources, as hundreds of asylum seekers have entered Quebec to get around the Safe Third Country Agreement. The 2004 accord prevents prospective refugees already in the U.S. from filing their claims at the Canadian border, and vice versa. But getting onto Canadian soil to make the claim gets around the deal.
Dupuis said PRAIDA’s finances could hit a critical point as early as the summer, meaning that the Quebec and federal governments may need to increase funding if the number of refugee claimants coming into the province does not level off.
“Usually when we have ups and downs like the wave we had with the Syrians, the curve eventually became flatter . . . but this new trend seems to persist,” she said.
Mujimbere first heard about the program from another Burundian who had come to Montreal as a refugee. The program is run out of a downtown YMCA shelter around the corner from a shopping complex and movie theatre where the Montreal Forum once stood.
“He said, ‘I can’t let you stay at my place because there’s not enough space,’” Mujimbere recalled. But his countryman told him: “ ‘When I got here I stayed at PRAIDA.’ ”
Mohamed Al-Hashemi, a 47-year-old lawyer from Yemen, learned about the shelter from an immigration officer in May 2015 after he illegally crossed into Canada from the United States at Roxham Rd., in New York state, which is the busiest illegal crossing point in the country, connecting Quebec and New York.
Al-Hashemi expected rougher living conditions based on what he knew of refugee camps in the Middle East. He also expected a reckoning — that he would one day have to pay for the services he was receiving in cash or in labour.
“There was nothing,” he said. “They never asked for anything.”
Apart from temporary shelter and meals, refugee claimants also receive crash legal courses on the process for claiming refugee status, assistance with the forms needed to receive medical care and welfare payments.
There are trauma counsellors and translators, transit passes and even services that Al-Hashemi said helped him manage the anxiety of being separated from his wife and two children, and resulting from the ravages of the conflict in Yemen.
“All the time I was thinking about my country and how the destruction has been so rapid,” he said, “and there was meditation every two days, there were yoga classes. There are people to comfort you and tell you that everything is going to be good.”
Priority is given to those who arrive in Canada with no money, family or friends to rely on, though Dupuis said no one who asks for help is turned away.
Two immigration lawyers, however, told the Star about clients who have used a Montreal homeless shelter, rather than the YMCA, as an emergency residence. None of those clients could be reached to provide further details.
Matthew Pearce, director of Montreal’s Old Brewery Mission, confirmed there have been several recent instances. “I’m glad to say the numbers are not high here, but there are a few who’ve come and if it’s two, it’s two too many,” he said.
About three years ago, Pearce said the mission asked PRAIDA to stop referring asylum seekers to the shelter when the YMCA ran out of available shelter beds, because shelter staff are trained to deal with mental health and addiction issues, not cultural integration. That discussion appears to have resolved the matter, although some asylum-seekers still trickle in on occasion, Pearce said.
“Either they’ve fallen through the cracks, or everything is stuffed, such that there are no cracks and there’s no place to go,” he said.
If all goes according to plan, the welcome for asylum seekers is a scene like the one that played out recently in the office of African Rainbow, an advocacy and support group for gays, lesbians and transgender people of African and Caribbean origins, where Mujimbere now works as assistant director general.
In the middle of the afternoon, there was a knock on the door from a young man who had learned about the group from someone he had met at the YMCA — an encounter that involved three generations of PRAIDA beneficiaries.
“Right now more than half of our members are new immigrants,” Mujimbere said. “Most of those are refugees and many of those are referred to us by PRAIDA.
“We offer a place where they can be heard, where the person will feel at ease and understood.”
Dozens of other organizations that offer support and services to refugees also have YMCA residents referred to them, whether for help finding rental housing or for more intensive counselling to deal with the traumas that have sparked the odyssey leading them to Canada.
But Al-Hashemi remembers the more simple services, like the chef who prepared him special meals during Ramadan and remembered that he was allergic to fish, or the Saturday tours to help residents navigate and discover Montreal.
“They transfer you from a bad situation to a very good situation.”