The reasons for a sudden surge in the number of people crossing into Quebec illegally from the U.S. may be something of a mystery, but community groups working with refugees in Montreal say one thing is for sure — the phenomenon is nothing new.

Though the official numbers for July have not been released, the provincial organization tasked with helping asylum seekers estimates that 1,174 people crossed into Quebec last month, compared to 180 people in July 2016.

Quebec's Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said Wednesday that it's believed 70 per cent are Haitian. Anecdotal evidence suggests they're leaving the U.S. in fear they'll be deported come January.

That's when U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to withdraw the temporary protected status that former president Barack Obama granted Haitians after the 2010 earthquake that devastated large parts of Haiti.

'No explanation'

As to why now, and why en masse, there are theories. But as Marjorie Villefranche of Montreal's Maison d'Haiti says, "it's strange, there's no explanation for that."

Villefranche says her organization is helping about 15 families each day with their refugee claims, housing and other basic needs.

In normal times, Maison d'Haiti helps about 20 families per week.

However, it's not the first time she's seen this happen. In the early 2000s, around 10,000 Haitians came to Canada over a two-year period, she says. 

Canada's been here before, lawyer says

Richard Goldman, a refugee lawyer with 30 years experience in the field, says it's important to note that such spikes have occurred before, notably in 2001 and 2008.

In 2001, 44,640 people claimed asylum in Canada and 36,856 did so in 2008.

Given the numbers to date for 2017, Goldman says Canada could be on track for a year-end total of around 36,000 refugee claimants.

"Canada has handled this in the past," he explains. "July may be some kind of outlier month, but overall we're not in some kind of unprecedented situation."

System overload

That message was echoed by Weil.

She says the situation is nothing Quebec hasn't faced before and the province is working with its federal counterparts to process the surge in claims in a timely manner.

Doing so, however, is proving a challenge, Goldman says.

"In the past, they were able to complete the initial process of the refugee claim within two or three days of the person's arrival," he explained.

"Because of the influx, they can't do that anymore. They send it on to be completed in Montreal and people might only have it completed four or eight weeks later."

One result of an overloaded system, he adds, is that people who know they want to move on to another province to make their claim end up stuck in Montreal for a month or more.

"If this technical problem could be fixed, it could lessen the burden by about 50 per cent pretty quickly," he says.

Weil says this potential fix is in the works.

With files from Cecilia MacArthur, CBC Montreal's Daybreak