'We want to work': Asylum seekers, groups call on Ottawa to issue work permits

As both Quebec and Ottawa take steps to accommodate a boom of asylum seekers, those who are illegally crossing into the province and the professionals working with them are calling for temporary work permits to be issued.

Government organization says migrants face long delays before they can find employment

A group of asylum seekers wait to be processed after being escorted from their tent encampment to the Canada Border Services in Lacolle, Que., August 11, 2017. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

As the federal and provincial governments take steps to accommodate a boom of asylum seekers, the professionals working with them are calling for temporary work permits to be issued.

The head of PRAIDA, the provincial government organization that helps claimants in their first months, said the majority of asylum seekers she met with are eager to find jobs while they wait to find out if they can stay in Canada.

"If they get temporary work permits then they are off the social aid and they can work," said Francine Dupuis. "And they are usually young families, young adults."

"We want to work," one asylum seeker living in a temporary housing centre in Montreal told CBC News. "That's the most important thing."

Asylum seekers cannot be issued work permits until they meet with Immigration Canada to determine if they are eligible for a refugee claim. If they meet the criteria, then asylum seekers can apply for a permit as they wait to have their hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada tribunal.

But with what the RCMP calls an "unprecedented" influx of migrants crossing illegally into Quebec from the United States, Dupuis said there are long delays before they can meet with Immigration Canada. Some only have meetings set up for 2018.

More than 3,800 migrants have crossed illegally into Quebec since the beginning of August. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

"We've been hoping that, as fast as they can, the federal government could allow them to work," said Dupuis. "Even if they get a negative answer in the end, at least they can provide for themselves during these months."

Quebec Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil has echoed that sentiment. Alongside PRAIDA, she has also called for the federal government to speed up issuing work permits.

"These are people who want to work," said Weil earlier this week.

'To the advantage of everyone'

Immigration Lawyer Eric Taillefer said speeding up work permits is a winning situation for both the federal and provincial governments.

"It means less welfare to distribute and more people paying taxes, so it's a big gain," he said. "It's all these people are asking — to contribute to the system that's welcoming them, so as soon as they can work, they'll be happy to."

Dupuis agreed, adding that having asylum seekers work would be to the "advantage of everyone" and would lift the pressure off PRAIDA's temporary housing centres as they struggle to meet the demands of those newly arriving.

"Everyone wants them to become autonomous," said Dupuis. ​

As of Wednesday, Weil said that 3,307 asylum seekers were in temporary residences across Quebec.

With files from CBC's Matt D'Amours and Verity Stevenson