Misleading social media messages entice Haitian asylum seekers to come to Canada

Through Facebook groups and other social media, thousands of Haitians living in the U.S. and elsewhere are getting misleading information, telling them Canada will give them a permanent safe haven.

WhatsApp message, Youtube video making rounds erroneously reports Canada issued open invitation to Haitians

An asylum seeker is processed by RCMP officers after crossing the border into Canada from Champlain, N.Y., in Hemmingford, Que., Friday, August 4, 2017. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Many of the thousands of Haitian nationals streaming across Canada's border from the U.S. may be basing their decision to flee on misleading and false information posted to WhatsAppFacebook groups and other social media.

Encouraged by those ambiguous or deceptive posts, many of the 50,000 to 60,000 Haitians living with temporary protected status (TPS) in the U.S. could be interpreting Canada's welcoming attitude towards immigrants as a clarion call.

In May, President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw the protected status of Haitians who took refuge in the country following the 2010 earthquake.

With the TPS set to expire in January 2018, Haitian nationals now fear being sent back to Haiti.

'Canadian consulate' meeting that never was

In the wake of Trump's announcement, one New York immigration lawyer, Macx L. Jean-Louis, organized a presentation for the Haitian community at a church in New Jersey in June, inviting Toronto lawyer Veronica Wilson to explain how the Canadian immigration system works.

She said she explained the point system to them, saying skilled workers had a leg up and that many might be able to qualify as immigrants because they could speak French.

She said there was no discussion of crossing into Canada outside ports of entry at the meeting.

"The church was packed," Wilson told CBC News. "People were standing in the aisles, and everyone had their phones video recording us, and at the end there was a lineup of questions."

Wilson has been helping Haitian nationals make applications to come to Canada. She says when they enter the border unofficially, "it's out of fear," and that it's possible they don't realize "there may be legal avenues for them."

Right after that June 17 meeting, a WhatsApp message began circulating. 

"The Consul of Canada in the USA held a meeting in New Jersey for more than two hours," it states. "It invited and even encouraged all Haitians (with or without TPS) to apply for residency in Canada." 

The message goes on to give the name and an incorrect contact number for Jean-Louis, the New York lawyer who organized the information meeting with Wilson. It also states that the Canadian government will cover any "fees."

'Fake news'

The day after that WhatsApp message went out, Jean-Louis says, he received 264 calls.

He's been flooded with calls ever since, coming from Haitian nationals in the Dominican Republic, Chile, Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

All had received the erroneous WhatsApp message or saw a video of the meeting on Youtube which was mislabelled as having taken place at Canada's consular headquarters in New Jersey.

Jean-Louis doesn't know where the WhatsApp message originated, but "my understanding is that ... the person lives in Montreal, Canada."

"He was not even there at the meeting, but he put out the fake news," Jean-Louis said.

The Toronto lawyer, Veronica Wilson, has also been fielding calls from people who have clearly received the same information, because she's been mistaken for Canadian consular staff.

She said one of the people who called her in the wake of the meeting, "was speaking to me as if I was a Canadian official, and I had to clearly state, that no [I was not]."

This video of the June 17 information meeting is mislabelled in Creole as a Canadian consular meeting:

Portraying Canada as a haven

Other questionable social media messages have originated with the Haitian Diaspora Organization in Miami, a group with 11,000 Facebook followers and as many as 5,000 WhatsApp members in its network.

Its executive director, Jude Metellus, said he launched a social media campaign to encourage Haitian nationals with no other option to try crossing the Canadian border outside of the established checkpoints.

He said he started the campaign after he read Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's response to Trump's move to ban immigration from Muslim countries.

"Canadians have been very clear that we see immigration as a net positive," Trudeau said.

"Right now, Canada is a haven," Metellus told CBC News. "That's what we've been portraying to them."

He said he tells those willing to make the trip that the fastest and "best" way into Canada "is to literally drive up to the border and just say that they are requesting asylum."

Metellus said his organization hasn't guaranteed Haitians they'll be granted asylum once they're in Canada.

It's a risk most are willing to take, he said.

"When a Haitian who escaped Haiti because of poverty — I mean literally because they are eating dirt — and they've had a chance to come into the United States, to go into Canada is a desperate move," said Metellus.

'They have to give hope'

"The message they're getting [on social media] is that Canada is ready to lay down the red carpet, as if we were Syrian, and that they would be welcomed," said Jean-Ernest Pierre, the director of Montreal's Haitian community radio station CPAM.

He said there's no evidence of malicious intent behind the misleading social media campaign. 

He believes the false information is circulated by people who "feel they have to give hope ... but it's completely false that Canada is ready to receive all these people."

Maison d'Haiti's director, Marjorie Villefranche, said word is spreading among Haitians in the U.S. that asylum seekers are being treated well at the border. (CBC)

Marjorie Villefranche, director general of the Maison d'Haiti, a hub for the Haitian community in Montreal​, says it's also a word-of-mouth affair between friends and families sharing successful stories of crossing at Roxham Road, where they are greeted with respect by RCMP officers.

"They hope the moment they cross the border and they arrive here, they will have the permanent resident visa — and it is not true," Villefranche says.

"It's not paradise. You have to go through a very complicated process, and it won't be easy."

Still, Villefranche says, the kind welcome Haitian asylum seekers are getting as they cross into Canada shouldn't change.

"When people arrive in a difficult situation, this is our way to do it," she said. "Why change what we are?"

With files from Lauren McCallum and Alison Northcott