copyright 2003 Mark Bellis
LACOLLE, Que., - Waves of mostly Pakistani refugees seeking asylum in Canada are being sent back to the United States where many face detention upon their return.
It's minus 30 outside the border post at LaColle, Quebec, smack in the middle of nowhere, but on the main route between Montreal and New York. About 20 refugee claimaints huddle inside a sealed waiting room where they are buzzed in and out of by an immigration official. All seem to be from Islamic countries, Somalia, the Middle East and most from the Indian subcontinent. Most look terrified as they wait for their names to be called.
There has been a rush on Canadian border crossings by refugee claimants since December when Pakistan was added by the U.S. Department of Justice to a list of 25 mostly Islamic nations and North Korea, whose citizens have to register with the immigration officials.
Adult males who are not landed immigrants or have become US citizens from those countries are required to be fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed, steps the U.S. government has said are necessary to fight terrorism and keep track of aliens.
All of the refugees who spoke to a reporter said they left the US after they had seen media reports that undocumented aliens had been arrested after they had shown up for the special registration with the INS. All of them worried that they would be arrested if they went to the registration.
The refugees didn't want their faces photographed or give their last names to the media, so it is impossible to verify their stories, but some were willing to talk.
Naaem, a banker from Lahore who has been living in New Jersey for 2 1/2 years, and had overstayed his tourist visa, said he and his wife and 11 year old son had to walk 400 metres hauling all their worldly goods in six bags across the windblown road where the taxi dropped them off on the American side. They show their hands, swollen with frostbite.
"My son, Ramiz, he's on the honor roll at his school - I came to the United States because I wanted him to get a good education." he said. "Canada's a great country - I hope he can get into a good school there."
They got off the Greyhound from New York at 4.30 am in Plattsburgh, the last stop before the Canadian border but still almost an hour away. They paid a taxi $60 to drive them up. It's usually $ 50, but it was late at night so the driver charged them more.
The family was lightly dressed, and their hands were frostbitten.
Ali, an auto mechanic from Karachi who was going to school in New Jersey on a student visa which had expired, said he first paid $ 1000.00 (US)to a woman who said she was an immigration lawyer from Toronto and that everything would be arranged for him to come through the border. He'd read an ad for her in a local newspaper for the Pakistani community in New Jersey. He took the bus to Plattsburgh, stayed at a hotel and was told by the 'lawyer' that he had to call a certain taxi driver to take him to the border for $ 100.00 (US). When he got to the border January 30, he was sent back with a return date for an interview, and then arrested by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and sent to jail, but got a friend to post a bond for $ 1500.00 (US).
Ali said he was in jail for about a week and was in lockdown, unable to use the phone, for three days. He said he hadn't been mistreated by either the INS or the jailers, and there were about 17 other INS detainees, mostly from Pakistan, in the Oneida County jail with him. After he got out of jail, he stayed at the Salvation Army in Burlington, which drove him up to the border post. He had been in the glass room, with the American border about 100 metres behind them, since 6.30 am the day before.
Ali is a Shiite Muslim, a minority in Pakistan, and wants to claim refugee status because of ethnic conflicts. "In Pakistan, there is fighting every day between Shiites and [the majority] Sunni muslims" and between different ethnic groups, he said. "Every day in Pakistan, I expect to die"
Both Ali and the Naaem family want to go to Toronto, where they say they have friends.
"It's an outrage. It's not the thing a great nation is supposed to do." said Patrick Giantonio, a pretzel maker from Montpelier, Vt., who helps run Vermont Refugee Assistance, a group trying to help them enter Canada.
Refugee groups estimated about 50 people are currently being held in detention by the INS after being sent back from the border crossing at LaColle, Que, on the main routes in Eastern Canada.
For Pakistanis, the deadline announced for the special registration was Feb. 21, but was extended to March 21.
As a result, more and more refugees arrive daily according to Immigration Canada spokesperson Robert Gervais.
He said about a dozen people make refugee claims daily at LaColle, but since January, some days see more than 30 applicants, and officials have "no choice" but to schedule appointments at later dates and send them back.
In all, 304 have been directed back from LaColle since the beginning of the year said Gervais. About 111 have been directed back from the border posts on the Niagara frontier and 245 from Sarnia and Windsor, but the situation is less severe since there are shelters for refugees close to the border on the US side.
After they go back to the U.S., Giantonio said most claimants go to emergency shelters in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and Burlington, Vt., to wait for their hearings, but some are detained by immigration authorities if they have overstayed their visa or have other irregularities. If they can't come up with a $1,500 (U.S.) bond, they are sent to local county jails.
Giantonio said that several of the refugee applicants have missed their appointments because they were in custody. Some families have been separated from their fathers (nearly all of the detainees are male), and it was difficult to get them to their appointments without their fathers, Giantonio said.
Ali confirmed that some applicants at the jail he was in have missed their appointments because they could not post a bond, which in some cases was $ 5000.00 (US).
Gervais said 19 have not shown up for their refugee hearings at LaColle and he did not know if they were detained.
He said 713 refugee applicants have applied through the border post since the start of this year, and around 500 have entered, the majority Pakistani. Anyone rejected at the border after a refugee hearing would be sent back to the USA.
In 2002, the latest date for accurate statistics, there were 39498 refugee applicants, from outside and inside of Canada, 10 percent Pakistani, about half of which were accepted. Pakistan is the leading country of origin for claimants, even before the INS announced the special registration. None of the other 25 countries on the INS list had nearly as many applicants as Pakistan.
There are no statistics for what part of Canada claimants are staying in. The Immigrant and Refugee Board hears most of its claim in Toronto, followed by Montreal.
Claimants inside of Canada can appeal their claim if they have a legitimate fear of harm if they are sent back to their home country. If failed claimants do not leave Canada voluntarily, they can be ordered to be removed. About 6000 people per year are ordered removed, but this number includes people ordered deported because of criminal records, or who have already left Canada but have not told Immigration they have left.
Rivka Augenfeld, President of the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes, a Montreal-based umbrella group for refugees, said that until Jan. 27, refugees applying at LaColle would often get a meeting and be admitted the same day, but now, anyone coming to the border without an appointment is directed back to the U.S. and told to come back for a scheduled meeting.
Augenfeld said that before this, no one who was likely to be detained by the INS for being undocumented was sent back, and that the "INS has less and less discretion, and is applying the law in the most narrow way now" to detain people.
She said that a lot of the claimants have been living in the States for years, and have worked and paid taxes, and that many have U.S.-born children with them.
"Basically what we are looking at is a surge, and it seems to be a direct result of the registration program - the largest number (of claimants) are from Pakistan." said Joung-ah Ghedini, a spokesperson in Washington for the UNHCR said that the commission has visited LaColle because it is concerned that the detention of some of claimants may deter others from seeking refugee status and to make sure that all applicants have access to officials to make their claims.
Buti Kale, senior protection officer for UNHCR Ottawa, said that the 'direct back' policy did not violate international conventions on refugees, which does not allow returning refugees to where they would likely be in physical danger, but he said that "unless people are a security threat, they should not be detained. Representatives of the High Commission from Montreal visited LaColle and the Salvation Army in Burlington to speak with claimants.
Janet Dench, of the Montreal-based Canadian Council for Refugees, said that detainees go into 'lockdown' for their first few days in jail, and have limited access to phones.
One of the detention centres is at the Oneida County Correctional Facility, near Utica, N.Y.. Chief Deputy William Chapple says there are 18 INS detainees at his facility. When they are admitted they go through a period of "Medical Lockdown", lasting a maximun of 72 hours, where they are isolated from the general jail population and cannot use the phones until they are seen by a doctor to make sure they have no communicable diseases.
Giantonio gets dozens of collect calls from Oneida County Correctional Facility. He said some of the detainees are transferred to Buffalo for deportation hearings and some with outstanding deportation orders may already have been sent back.
The Salvation Army-run emergency shelter has been packed, said Giantonio, but now most of the refugees have been sent to stay with families from local churches and a synagogue.
Major James Fletcher of the Burlington Salvation Army said there are about 40 claimants in Burlington waiting for interviews. "There's been a tremendous response from the local community." who have volunteered to house the claimants, and some have even driven them to their appointments at the border.
Saad, a 21 year old construction worker from Lahore, who was at Lacolle went out of his way to thank Major Fletcher. "He was the best person I ever met in America". The Salvation Army drove Saad to his interview, for free. Saad said if he got in, he probably will be staying at the YMCA in Montreal and will be looking for work there.
Refugee assistance groups says they're doing record business. In Buffalo, NY, Vive, a shelter and support group, says its shelter is full to its 120 person capacity, and all total there are 669 people, some of whom are staying in hotels or with friends, that it is dealing with waiting for appointments. Spokesperson Molly Short says they have registered 420 Pakistanis, and the number of people waiting is likely to reach 1000, a new record, this month. Short said she is starting to notice more applicants from Bangladesh, Egypt and Indonesia, countries added to the special registration list after Pakistan. Short said there are probably much fewer in INS detention than from the border at LaColle, because Vive has been able to tell applicants they might be sent back if they don't have a date for a hearing. In Burlington there are about 30 in temporary shelters, and about the same in Detroit.
But Saad and the other refugee claimants remain upset at the INS actions. "Why was it only for people from Muslim countries? Why not for everybody?" asked Saad.
Michael Gilhooly, spokesperson for the INS, said that if the claimants that were sent back were out of status in the USA, they would be given a date to appear in immigration court, and they would only be detained if they "posed a risk of flight", that is, were likely not to show up for their court date, or had criminal records or were a danger to the public. He said there was no policy to allow those in detention to go back to the border for their hearing if they could not pay their bond.
Gilhooly declined to say how many people were in detention. Refugees support groups along the US border with Ontario and Quebec say about 50.
Giantonio, who spent four years walking across Africa to raise money for famine relief, said that the refugee crisis was "one of the most tragic I've seen in my life - it's really tragic to see the fear in the eyes of the Pakistanis (and other migrants)."
Giantonio said that none of the detained were terror suspects.