Asylum seekers could be moved out of Quebec as part of deal with Ottawa

Asylum seekers crossing illegally into Quebec could be shuttled elsewhere in Canada starting this week as the federal government seeks to relieve pressure on the province's strained resources.

Federal officials propose new options for migrants as Quebec government complains of drain on resources

RCMP officers intercepted a total of 18,836 asylum seekers in Quebec in 2017. The Quebec government fears that number could be higher this year. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

Asylum seekers crossing illegally into Quebec could be shuttled elsewhere in Canada starting this week as the federal government seeks to relieve pressure on the province's strained resources.

Quebec has been complaining that Ottawa hasn't shouldered its share of the costs associated with sheltering the thousands of asylum seekers who are entering the province from the U.S.

Already this year, more than 5,500 migrants have crossed illegally into Quebec, federal immigration officials said during a briefing last week.

That compares with about 2,000 by this time last year, raising concerns that warmer weather could bring a summer rush, as happened in 2017. RCMP officers intercepted 18,836 asylum seekers in Quebec in 2017.

The unexpected influx left authorities and advocates scrambling to provide the new arrivals with housing, clothing and education.

Premier Philippe Couillard, right, and Immigration Minister David Heurtel in a 2017 file photo. Quebec has complained that Ottawa hasn't shouldered its share of the costs associated with sheltering thousands of asylum seekers. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

The military set up a temporary camp near the busiest point at which migrants were crossing into Quebec, Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle's Roxham Road, and even the Olympic Stadium was pressed into service as an emergency shelter.

Facing the prospect of even more asylum seekers arriving this year, the Quebec government wants to be reimbursed $146 million by the feds for the costs it incurred last year.

Quebec presses for help 

Quebec Immigration Minister David Heurtel met with his Ontario and federal counterparts in Ottawa last Wednesday to press his demands.

After the meeting, the federal government said it was willing to consider reimbursing the province and set in motion a number of measures meant to alleviate the burden on Quebec's social services.

Premier Philippe Couillard welcomed the federal government's willingness to cooperate. "We have seen changes in tone and action," he said Sunday. 

Ottawa has committed to implementing two types of triage systems. One will determine whether an asylum seeker has the intention of remaining in Quebec.

Of the current influx of asylum seekers — many of whom are Nigerians with U.S. visas — officials estimate only 40 per cent intend to stay in the province. 

Ottawa has agreed to send these claimants directly to other provinces. "It is the federal [government's] responsibility to take them where they want to be," Couillard said.

A family, which said it was from Colombia, gets set to cross the border into Canada at Quebec's Roxham Road last week. More than 5,500 migrants have crossed illegally into the province so far this year. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The second triage process will determine the skill sets of incoming migrants and try to match them with areas in Quebec facing labour shortages. 

"We hope to find a functional solution in the coming days," federal officials told reporters on Friday. 

"Obviously, it's an effort that is beginning. Will it be fully functional by the end of next week? I couldn't tell you. But certainly the basic elements will be in place." 

Hoping for quick solution

The Quebec government is pushing for a rapid implementation of these measures. It is only operating four shelters in Montreal, offering a total 1,850 spots to house asylum seekers as they wait for their claims to be processed. 

Asylum seekers spend between three and four weeks in shelters before getting their own housing, according to PRAIDA, the provincial government organization that helps claimants in their first months.

 As of April 20, there were 1,159 asylum seekers being housed in Montreal shelters.

Unlike last year, Heurtel said, the government has no intention of using the Olympic Stadium to provide more space. 

"When we reach capacity at our four centres in Montreal, then we will tell the federal government, 'You will have to redirect the asylum seekers somewhere else,'" Heurtel told Radio-Canada's weekly political affairs program, Les coulisses du pouvoir.

Both the federal and provincial government are facing intense pressure from their political rivals over how they have handled the asylum-seekers file.

An RCMP officer stands guard at the border leading into Canada from the U.S. The influx of asylum seekers has left authorities and advocates in Quebec scrambling to provide the new arrivals with housing, food and clothing. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Opposition parties in Quebec accused Couillard last week of not doing enough to secure more resources from Ottawa.

The Coalition Avenir Québec, which has held a slight lead over the Liberals in recent polls, wants the province to dramatically reduce the number of asylum seekers it accepts. 

Federal Conservatives in Quebec have also been using the issue to drum up support in a province where they hope to make gains in the 2019 election.

Jacques Gourde, a Quebec City-area MP, circulated fundraising emails last week saying "hundreds of illegal immigrants have started to cross our border again and Justin Trudeau is doing nothing to stop them."

The Quebec Bar Association issued a statement last year discouraging the use of the term "illegal immigrant," noting it is a concept that has no legal basis.

With files from The Canadian Press, Radio-Canada and Antoni Nerestant