'I am nothing': Asylum seekers feel trapped in grey zone created by new rule

Melanie fled Haiti with her husband for the U.S. a year ago, after armed men broke into her home and brutally assaulted her twice. Navigating the U.S. immigration system proved expensive and difficult.

The rule, implemented in June, means a pregnant woman who fled violence in Haiti can't claim asylum in Canada

A Haitian asylum seeker, whose identity CBC News has agreed to protect, says she feels like a prisoner trapped by a new federal law barring refugees from seeking asylum in Canada if they've already made a claim in a country considered 'safe.' (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Melanie fled Haiti with her husband for the U.S. a year ago, after armed men broke into her home and brutally assaulted her — not once, but twice. Navigating the U.S. immigration system proved expensive and difficult.

This August, the couple set their sights on Canada, crossing into Quebec at Roxham Road.

Neither of them knew that in June, the federal Liberal government had changed the rules, in an effort to deter the steady flow of asylum seekers coming into Canada at unauthorized crossings. Refugees can no longer claim asylum in Canada if they have already made a claim in another country which Canada deems safe, including the U.S.

Melanie, 31, whose identity CBC News has agreed to protect because she fears reprisals back home, left Haiti after she was raped by the men who'd come looking for her husband, an entrepreneur who was away at the time.

Melanie told CBC News that her and her husband's asylum claims in the U.S. were rejected after authorities there told her they'd never received the evidence documents she'd mailed. 

Their savings depleted, the couple didn't have the $3,000 to $5,000 lawyers told her it would cost to start the asylum process over again. So they set out for the New York-Quebec border.

It wasn't until they were sitting in front of Canadian immigration officials in downtown Montreal that they discovered they weren't entitled to claim asylum in Canada.

"We felt completely hopeless," Melanie said. "We were asking ourselves a ton of questions and started regretting leaving the United States."

They cannot return to the U.S. 

And because of the level of political violence in Haiti, Canada has issued a moratorium on deportations to their home country, so the couple now find themselves in a "grey zone" — without the rights or resources of a refugee claimant.

She says she and her husband are still struggling to accept their fate.

Interviewed in the small apartment she and her husband have rented outside Montreal, Melanie said she feels trapped in Canada with no career prospects and an uncertain future. (CBC)

'People in limbo'

Refugee advocacy groups opposed the government's decision to change the rules on who can seek asylum, accusing the government of acting hastily in response to political pressure without properly studying the effects of the provision. 

"It seems it was a last-minute invention, probably at the political level," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "They hadn't even thought that they were creating this whole category of people in limbo."

Melanie and her husband find themselves in that category. 

The moratorium on deportations to Haiti could be lifted at any time, Dench says, at which point the couple's only recourse would be to apply for a pre-removal risk assessment — basically, an opportunity to describe, in writing, the risks they believe they would face if sent back. 

It's a process Dench calls "not obvious and difficult."

Melanie fears her story will never be given a fair hearing.

'It's like you're separated from the world'

"I am not an asylum seeker, I am not a resident. I am nothing," Melanie told CBC News in an interview at the small apartment she and her husband have rented 45 minutes outside Montreal. 

Weeks after the couple arrived in Quebec, Melanie found out she was pregnant. It should be welcome news, as the couple had been hoping to have a child since they were married four years ago, but the timing is a challenge.

"It's like you're separated from the world, from your family. It's stressful, knowing you're pregnant and you don't know what lies ahead," she said. 

On a recent hospital visit, Melanie says the nurses almost turned her away because they thought her status meant she wasn't entitled to care.

Dench says asylum seekers are supposed to have access to basic services, including health care and social assistance, but that's not how some provinces, including Quebec, and service providers seem to be interpreting the law.

"We raised this as a concern — that it would lead to people falling between the cracks and not getting access to services, and unfortunately, what we predicted seems to have come true," she said.

The Quebec government has so far been refusing requests for social assistance for people in Melanie's position, unless they provide a letter from a lawyer or advocate requesting financial help on a "discretionary" basis.

"It is unfair to be asking lawyers or anybody else really to explain. I mean, the federal government created this category of people," Dench said. 

She also pointed out asylum seekers whose claims have been deemed "ineligible" must pay $155 to apply for a work permit, adding another hurdle to their situation. 

Asylum seekers in catch-22

Frantz André, the founder of the Comité d'Action des Personnes Sans Statut — a group that advocates for Haitian asylum seekers — has already had to write four such letters, including one for another Haitian in Montreal, who is in the same situation as Melanie and her husband.

That man, who also wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons, says he fled Haiti three years ago after the powerful senator he worked for changed political affiliations and sent men to beat him up, three times. 

Frantz André of Montreal's Comité d'Action des Personnes Sans Statut says he's already had to write four letters to the Quebec government asking it to grant asylum seekers the social assistance they have a right to. (CBC)

The man's asylum claim was rejected in the United States, so he went underground, getting intermittent work harvesting vegetables on farms in Florida.

But the political climate and anti-immigrant fervour in the U.S. left him so fearful of being captured by ICE, the American immigration police, he decided to come to Canada. He, too, is among the 50,000 people who have stepped across the border at Roxham Road in the past two years.

"I came to Canada and ended up in a worse situation than in the United States," he said. 

The political climate in the United States and fear of being captured by American immigration police prompted this Haitian asylum seeker to come to Canada. He feels his situation is worse here. (CBC)

He says he wanted to speak up to warn others thinking of heading to Canada. 

"To come to a country and think they will receive you and then to be told your claim is ineligible, it's really shocking." 

Marjorie Villefranche, the director of the Maison d'Haïti, a Montreal community centre, says asylum seekers like Melanie are in a catch-22 predicament. Because of Canada's Safe Third Country treaty with the U.S., they are required to seek asylum in the first country they step foot in, even if they are fearful of how they'll be treated in the U.S.

Villefranche says she hopes those in limbo will eventually be given the opportunity to make requests for Canadian permanent residency, on humanitarian grounds.

As for Melanie, the lack of options is weighing on her. Her childhood in Haiti was difficult, but she managed to complete two degrees and became an elementary school principal in her early 20s. 

Now, though, she feels trapped in Canada with no career prospects and an uncertain future.

"Nobody can live like this."


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.