Asylum seekers arriving illegally in Quebec are getting access to health-care services before the government knows whether they’re eligible to make a refugee claim, due to a backlog of cases, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
About 3,800 people have crossed the Canada-U.S. border into Quebec in the first two weeks of August. This influx, after nearly 3,000 people arrived in July, has pushed the government to set up temporary tent housing in Lacolle, and more recently in Cornwall, Ontario.
But there are signs that the high numbers have significantly strained the system.
Normally, “irregular” arrivals who cross the border illegally first go through a security check and then go through a second screening to determine whether they are eligible to make a refugee claim. These two checks are usually done within a matter of hours or days.
But according to Denise Otis, a protection officer with the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Montreal, the eligibility interviews are taking months to arrange. “The situation right now is for people unless you are very vulnerable, at this moment we are the 21st of August, you will have your eligibility interview in January.”
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Asylum seekers are still getting security screened, she said, but the second check is taking a long time because of the number of people. “There were too many people waiting for days in difficult conditions, so they decided to only proceed with the beginning of the application. Just receiving their names and identifying themselves.”
In the meantime, people are getting access to some benefits that are usually only reserved for those whose refugee claim is waiting to be heard by the Immigration and Refugee Board.
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These asylum seekers will begin getting basic health care under the Interim Federal Health Program due to the delays, said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.
“With the current delay for the initial eligibility interview, this leaves individuals without (medical) coverage for several weeks, relying on emergency rooms for even minor health concerns. It also delays their ability to undergo an immigration medical exam in a timely way,” said IRCC.
“In light of this, we will begin extending this coverage to asylum seekers immediately as they enter Canada rather than waiting until their claim has been referred to the IRB. Government officials have begun working on making this happen.”
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It’s possible that some of these people, after receiving temporary benefits, could be found ineligible to make a claim and would then be asked to leave Canada – if they had already made a refugee claim in Canada years ago, for example.
“With the initial influx before the ramping up of our capacity at Lacolle, the timelines were five months for the eligibility hearing,” said Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. “But even that is coming down really, really fast.”
In a written statement, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said that they are addressing interview delays by opening a new floor at their processing centre in Montreal, tripling the capacity of that processing centre and scheduling earlier interviews for people whose paperwork is completed.
Under more normal circumstances, where their eligibility is determined quickly, people who make a refugee claim would still be getting benefits. They’re just receiving them at an earlier stage now, before they know if they can make a claim.
Otis is happy that the government has taken interim measures to deliver benefits during the delays.
“The person will eventually have the interview. It’s been postponed for all kinds of situations that are not the fault of the person themselves,” she said. “So in the meantime, you can’t just leave them in the street, right?”
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