Refugees crossing into B.C. on the rise, immigration group says
February 2, 2018
By Denise Ryan, Vancouver Sun |
On Nov. 18, 2017, Ribwar Omar, a 38-year-old Iraqi Kurd, arrived in Blaine, Wash., by bus. He stopped at a coffee shop, bought a hot chocolate and then, using the GPS on his phone, he made his way through a forest near the Peace Arch and crossed the border into Canada.
Omar is awaiting a refugee hearing, one of 1,277 new refugee claimants that made their way on foot from Washington state to B.C. in 2017 and accessed services through the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. . New numbers released by the ISS show their group has tracked a 76-per-cent increase in individuals accessing their services that have applied for refugee status, and 90 per cent of those arrive the same way Omar did: by walking across the U.S./Canada border between Blaine and Surrey through Peace Arch Park.
Chris Friesen of the ISS calls it “the underground railroad.”
“We have seen single men, families of 12, 13, people in wheelchairs, pregnant women,” said Friesen, with the majority originating from Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Iran and Colombia.
Friesen and other advocates are concerned that the spike in the number of asylum seekers could increase as the weather warms-up. Last summer, over 7,000 asylum seekers entered Quebec through irregular border crossings.
The reason many asylum seekers are using irregular border crossings — through farmers fields or border parks — is because of the Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the U.S.
Under the deal refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in, unless they qualify for an exception.
“This means that a refugee claimant who came from the United States to Canada through an official border crossing could be detained and deported, or kept in the United States, forcibly impinging their ability to seek asylum in this country,” said Friesen.
Many of the refugee claimants are well-informed about their rights, and will phone the RCMP to be picked up once they arrive in Canada. “The RCMP will drive them to Hornby Street to file their refugee claim, [and begin the process of settlement],” said Friesen.
“With the numbers that are coming in it is pushing us to the breaking point,” said Friesen, who called the situation “a bloody mess.”
Friesen said ISS is tracking two clear waves of refugee claimants. The first includes those, like Omar, who are able to obtain a legal visitor’s visa to the U.S., and use the United States as a transit point into Canada.
“This is quite new,” said Friesen.
The second stream of new asylum seekers is comprised of individuals who may have been in the U.S. for years, but are vulnerable to the Trump administration’s new policies, including accelerated deportations, the suspension of temporary protection agreements for Haitian and El Salvadoran immigrants, as well as Dreamers.
Friesen said he has been in contact with provincial officials who are planning consultations next month on contingency plans to deal with the continued influx of asylum seekers.
In a statement emailed to Postmedia News, the Ministry of Jobs, Trade and Technology said that 2,195 refugee claims were made in B.C. between January and November of last year, an increase of 78 per cent from the previous year.
“B.C. is aware that current service-providers have seen an increase in clients seeking service and is working with service-providers to explore solutions to address the needs of recently arrived refugee claimants,” the ministry said, as well as looking at ways to provide additional support to refugee claimants.
(The federal Office of the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness said in an email statement that there were 2,325 asylum claims in BC in 2017, a 70 per cent increase over 2016, and of those only 31 per cent entered at an irregularly.)