Nova Scotia·Q&A

'Up for the challenge': Agency welcomes Roxham Road asylum claimants to N.S.

The Halifax Refugee Clinic says it is "up to the challenge" of handling an unprecedented number of asylum seekers arriving in Canada from the U.S. through an irregular border crossing in Quebec.

Some asylum seekers in Quebec are being diverted to Nova Scotia

People in jackets walk towards police officers in the winter.
A family of asylum seekers from Colombia is met by RCMP officers after crossing the border at Roxham Road in February. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

In a bid to ease the burden on Quebec's public services, some refugee claimants entering the province at the irregular border crossing at Roxham Road are being diverted to Nova Scotia.

According to Julie Chamagne, executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic, this has resulted in an unprecedented number of refugee claimants arriving in the province.

Chamagne said 131 people have already arrived in Nova Scotia under the program and 30 more are slated to arrive next week. She said they are staying at two hotels in Halifax.

Speaking to CBC Radio's Information Morning Nova Scotia host Portia Clark, Chamagne said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada is making decisions on a weekly basis, so the number of refugees coming in the future is unclear.

Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

An influx of asylum seekers have overwhelmed Quebec's public services and are being diverted to other provinces, including Nova Scotia. We check in with the Halifax Refugee Clinic, which is offering settlement and legal aid services to the newcomers.

Is this an unusually large number of refugee claimants to arrive in our province at one time?

To my knowledge it's unprecedented.

Our annual client load is around 100 refugee claimants and non status migrants. This represents about a year and a half of our client load at the Halifax Refugee Clinic in just the space of a few weeks.

A woman in a black jacket faces right as she speaks to the camera.
Julie Chamagne is the executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic. (Robert Short/CBC)

We've seen a lot of Ukrainians come here, but they arrive under a different program. Are they not refugee claimants?

Refugee claimants are people who enter Canada and ask for the protection of the Canadian government because they fear persecution.

It's important to make that distinction because the legal determination process that refugee claimants enter into is lengthy and challenging and requires a lot of legal expertise and resources.

I've really been heartened by the provincial government's response and responsiveness to this issue, especially since the province has never really been historically engaged in any sort of substantial way with refugee claimant issues.

The resources are being allocated quickly and there's some welcome policy change, including steps toward opening up eligibility to provincially funded immigration settlement programs.

I'm quite worried about the access to justice issue that a large number of refugee claimants like this represents for our legal services here in Nova Scotia.

What kind of legal services or justice issues might they need to access?

Ideally, and I would say even crucially, people who are claiming refugee status need to go through this process with a lawyer.

It's a very challenging and intrusive process that demands a lot of legal expertise … collecting evidence and telling your story, and it culminates in front of the Immigration Refugee Board and the hearing.

It's a very high-stakes procedure and the consequences of not having representation can be dire, so we're really calling on the federal government to allocate more resources so that people can be well supported settlement-wise and also legally throughout this process.

What kinds of situations and countries are these asylum seekers coming from? When you mention war and persecution, can you be more specific?

People are coming from all around the world. There are many from Latin America, from Colombia and Venezuela, from Afghanistan, from Haiti, from Turkey, really all around the world.

How have they arrived at Roxham Road on the border there between Canada and the U.S.?

They've crossed through the U.S. some of them may have spent a period of time in the U.S. These refugee claimants in particular all represent people who crossed through the irregular border crossing at Roxham Road.

They're all fleeing persecution and war and instability and situations of insecurity and have come to seek safety here.  Beyond that there are many families with small children, there are some couples and individuals, and they're all just looking for a safer life for themselves and their families where they don't have to worry about danger and war and extreme poverty.

You mentioned they're staying in hotels and can do that for 60 days or so. During that time, what kind of supports are they getting through the refugee clinic?

When we learned, we immediately stepped in. We rented a room with the hotel. We're meeting everyone one by one and really trying to support everyone as best as we can. We're liaising with and referring to existing community resources as well as offering direct services.  We're giving presentations and assessing needs.

These decisions are being made by IRCC on a daily and weekly basis and we've been able to be very responsive and alert to this even though this represents a huge increase in clients for us.

We've had the support, for the most part, of the provincial government in this initiative.

How are they doing?

It's a very long and stressful and sometimes harrowing journey to safety and like anyone else who's newly arrived to the country they need support and a welcome.

Children are being registered for school, they have employment needs, they'll eventually have housing needs although they're secure in the hotel for a while.

There was a woman who was pregnant who's going to be a new mother soon, and one of our staff accompanied her to the IWK.

There are a lot of needs for sure. But I have to say that refugee claimants are really not a drain on our society.

They're very resourceful, very resilient, and they want … what we all want, which is a sense of community and belonging and to be able to provide for their families and to live somewhere in stability and safety.

For you there, I suppose this is a very busy time given this unprecedented number of people?

It's a very busy time and we're a relatively small organization. This is quite unprecedented for us.

I think that we're up for the challenge for sure and … it's a privilege to be able to serve people who have arrived, but we do need an allocation of more resources in order for us to carry out this important work.

With files from Information Morning Nova Scotia

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