Canadian Border Inundated with Refugee Applicants

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(Host) Refugee processing centers along the U.S. border are inundated with people trying to enter Canada. According to immigration officials, many of those seeking asylum are concerned a pending agreement between the United States and Canada will make it more difficult for them to cross the border.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports from Lacolle, Quebec.

(Zind) Patience here is a necessity. A narrow waiting room in the Canadian Customs building just across the border from Rouse’s Point, New York is filled with people seeking refugee status in Canada. They sleep in chairs or on the floor, surrounded by their suitcases. Women cradle young children. Men pace and smoke outside. Some of the refugees have been here for days waiting to be processed.

(Customs official) “Also, what is important: you have to go see a doctor to have a medical exam.”

(Zind) On a normal day, only about a dozen people come through this processing center. On this day, one hundred a twelve people are hoping to be admitted to Canada as refugees.

(Robert Gervais) “We just have one room for photos and fingerprinting. So even if we wanted to bring a hundred immigration officers, it just wouldn’t work. We just don’t have the physical space.”

(Zind) Robert Gervais of Canadian Immigration says the refugees are entering Canada now because they’re concerned about a new immigration agreement about to be signed by the U.S. and Canada. The Safe Third Country Agreement will require a person to apply for refugee status in the first country he or she enters. The status is often granted to people who’ve been persecuted in their home country. Because it’s easier to reach the U.S., many refugees arrive here first, then go on to Canada where refugee status is easier to obtain. That may not be possible under the new agreement.

(Gervais) “If you ask them why they are claiming refugee status now, they will tell you it’s because they heard that the immigration act is changing in Canada. It’s a new act. If you ask them what’s the difference, they don’t really know.”

(Zind) The new immigration agreement is the result of efforts to tighten security on both sides of the border in the wake of September 11. Not all of the refugees waiting in Lacolle are aware of the pending changes. A Turkish man says he’s lived in New York for several years. Now he’s applying for refugee status in Canada because, as a Muslim, he feels he’s under increased scrutiny since September 11.

(Turkish man) “Not very comfortable. When you walk on the street, you scared all the time. Maybe somebody ask you for your Green Card or something.”

(Zind) The man said he has been waiting at the Canadian immigration center for three days. The number of refugees arriving in Lacolle has been increasing daily. Now there’s not enough room to house them. Members of the Vermont Refugee Assistance Program are working to set up a refugee shelter in Plattsburgh, New York.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind at Canadian Customs in Lacolle, Quebec.

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