Canadian army builds 500-person border camp as asylum-seeker numbers rise


The Canadian military has been deployed to build a 500-person camp at a remote location at the border as authorities grapple with a growing number of asylum seekers crossing into Canada by foot from the United States.

On Wednesday, nearly 100 soldiers were sent to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle - just across the border from Champlain, New York - to erect heated tents to temporarily house as many as 500 people, the armed forces said in a statement. The site has become a popular crossing spot in recent months, with hundreds of people a day making the easy trip over a shallow ditch that connects both countries.

Since the start of the year, the numbers of asylum seekers entering Canada from the US has risen sharply. More than 4,000 of them - many of them driven by fears of Donald Trump's crackdown on immigrants - have entered Canada at remote, unguarded locations along the border.

By doing so, they aim to skirt a 2004 agreement between Canada and the US that forces most migrants to apply for asylum in the first country in which they arrive.

Recent months have seen the province of Quebec become a major entry point. As many as 250 migrants a day have arrived in Montreal in recent weeks, adding to the more than 3,300 asylum seekers who crossed into the province in the first six months of the year.

Authorities have responded by opening additional welcome centres. After hundreds of beds were set up last week in the city's Olympic Stadium, officials opened similar sites in a former convent, as well as a decommissioned hospital. Asylum seekers will likely only spend a few weeks in the centres before being moved into longer-term housing while they wait for their claims to be heard.

At Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have set up temporary facilities where migrants are screened and processed.

About 700 asylum seekers are at the site, and wait times for processing have swelled to two or three days, the Canadian border agency told the CBC. The delays mean migrants have been forced to wait in an area with no beds, just benches and chairs.

The camp - consisting of modular tent shelters with floors, lighting and heating - aims to rectify this. Military personnel will not participate in security matters, the armed forces said, and most of the soldiers will return to their home bases once the camp is built. Those who remain on site will be tasked with maintaining Canadian forces equipment.

Most of those crossing into Canada in recent days are Haitians who have been living in the US for years, according to Canadian officials. In May, the Trump administration threatened to pull the plug on a longstanding humanitarian program, potentially exposing as many as 58,000 Haitians to deportation.

John Kelly, the then homeland security secretary, eventually allowed for a six-month extension to the program, which gives Haitians in the US temporary protected status (TPS) as their country recovers from a series of disasters including the 2010 earthquake, a cholera epidemic and Hurricane Matthew. But Kelly warned those granted TPS not to assume it would be renewed again.

"This six-month extension should allow Haitian TPS recipients living in the United States time to attain travel documents and make other necessary arrangements for their ultimate departure from the United States, and should also provide the Haitian government with the time it needs to prepare for the future repatriation of all current TPS recipients," Kelly said in a statement.

Worried Haitians in the US - many of them spurred by misinformation regarding the ease of obtaining residency in Canada - began crossing the border in increased numbers this month, hoping to obtain refugee status in Canada.

The Canadian immigration ministry responded to the rumours on its Facebook page last week, noting that messages posted online suggesting Canada is inviting people to seek refugee status are incorrect. In 2016, refugee status was granted to roughly 50% of Haitians whose claims were considered, up slightly from the 40% success rate of applicants in 2015, according to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board.

The Trudeau government ended its own TPS designation for Haitians last year, inviting its 3,200 holders to apply for residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Many have since applied for permanent residency but advocacy groups have warned that some have been deported to Haiti.


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