The vast majority of the people who crossed the Canada-U.S. border irregularly last year will not be permitted to stay, a federal minister confirmed on Monday, but numbers provided by the Canada Border Services Agency suggest very few have so far been forced to leave.
“We estimate that a bit more than 90 per cent of irregular migrants do not meet our criteria (to claim asylum), and that they must leave,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau in French at a media briefing in Montreal.
WATCH: Government helping to redirect asylum seekers from Quebec: Hussen
Garneau was referring mainly to the Haitian nationals who crossed last summer, the government later clarified. The people coming this spring, in contrast, have been mainly from Nigeria, and their acceptance rate may be different, given the security situation in their home country.
According to the office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who was also at Monday’s briefing, the Canada Border Services Agency has removed a total of 243 irregular migrants since April 2017.
In that same time span, approximately 26,250 irregular migrants have crossed the Canada-U.S. border between legal checkpoints, meaning that while a majority may not qualify to remain here, only about one per cent of them have so far been removed.
Garneau said on Monday that another 200 will be leaving in the next two weeks.
Many of the people who crossed last year have ended up in Montreal (which has an established Haitian community) and Toronto, awaiting a decision from the Canadian government on whether they qualify to make an asylum claim. If they do, they must then wait to have that claim reviewed.
The decisions can take weeks and even months given the backlog of files currently being handled by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB). In the meantime, more than 12,500 work permits have been approved for asylum claimants in Quebec to allow them to find employment and keep food on the table while they wait.
Many of last year’s Haitian migrants had established lives, and jobs, in the United States before coming north. Their temporary protected status in the U.S., implemented after the devastating earthquake in 2010, is set to expire in July 2019.
WATCH: Canada seeks U.S. help turning away asylum seekers
Apart from the 243 people removed by the CBSA since the spring of 2017, it’s unclear if others may have left voluntarily over the winter months after they were told they could not claim asylum.
Others still may be in the process of appealing a rejection decision.
“Prior to removal, individuals may seek leave for judicial review, as well as administrative review procedures that assess the potential risk to the person of returning to the country of origin,” explained Scott Bardsley, spokesperson for Goodale’s office.
“Pre-removal risk assessment is one of the safeguards in place to ensure people in need of protection are not removed. This assessment is conducted by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada.”
The federal government is already gearing up for another busy summer at the border, with a vast majority of resources dedicated to the most popular illegal crossing point in Lacolle, Que.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said Monday he plans on travelling to Nigeria himself this month to meet with officials there. Three Canadian staffers are already on the ground.
WATCH: Goodale outlines steps to address influx at lacolle border crossing
Removals will take ‘years’: Rempel
The opposition, meanwhile, has been highly critical of Ottawa’s approach, with the Conservatives arguing that a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement (which is at the heart of why so many people are crossing between checkpoints) must be closed as soon as possible. Officials have said any changes to the treaty would require consent from the United States.
“We wouldn’t have to go to countries like Nigeria to tell people not to come if the loophole didn’t exist in the first place,” said Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel.
“Removal orders have dramatically increased under the Liberals, yet most of them have not been executed … the reality is, it will likely take years to process (the migrants’) refugee claims, and then years to remove them. The Liberals have no plan to rectify this.”
In the meantime, Rempel added, asylum seekers will have access to at least some social services and health care services.
Budget 2018 set aside $173.2 million over two years to strengthen border security and speed up processing times at the Immigration and Refugee Board.
Part of that money is to be used “to ensure that those claims that are refused are moved to the removal process in an expedited manner,” the government said Monday. Another chunk of the funds is being dedicated to hiring 64 new employees at the IRB.
WATCH: New hires will help expedite asylum claims: immigration minister
But last week, Shereen Benzvy Miller, deputy chairperson of the IRB’s Refugee Protection Division, told a parliamentary committee that it’s been difficult to recruit, train and retain those people.
“It is difficult to increase capacity on a dime … There are inherent challenges of having only a two-year funding window,” she said. “And it can be difficult to attract talent if all you have to offer is a couple of years of employment.”