Washington, Jan. 10: The American continent is witnessing the unthinkable in two-and-a-quarter century of US independence: refugees fleeing the US and seeking political asylum elsewhere!
Border crossings between America and Canada are getting crowded with refugees from the US, mostly Pakistanis who are seeking asylum across the border, alleging persecution and religious discrimination against Muslims in this country.
A steady inflow of Pakistani families at immigration checkpoints in the Canadian border provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia has forced NGOs in Canada to set up camping and other facilities.
Many families are crossing over with small children and braving Canada’s harsh, icy winter. Jean Cheney, spokesman for Canada’s immigration ministry, has been quoted in the Canadian media this week as saying that since January 1, more than 250 families have presented themselves at the border crossing at Lacolle, Quebec, alone.
Similar increases have been reported in refugee claims at border checkpoints in Fort Erie and Windsor in Ontario.
Applicants often arrive without passports in the hope that it will enable them to stay on in Canada, at least in detention camps for refugees or as illegal entrants. Others carry “questionable” documents, say immigration officials.
The sudden rush of refugees has meant those crossing over seeking asylum had to spend days at some border stations because immigration investigators were not available to process claims at those points.
Normally requests for asylum at these checkpoints are no more than a trickle in a whole year.
That too from third country nationals, especially Latin Americans, who use the US merely for transit into Canada.
With the spurt in Pakistani refugees, the Canadian government has been forced to press into service immigration officials on emergency duty to process claims for asylum.
Almost all the asylum seekers have been bussed to Montreal or Toronto to await a decision by Canada’s refugee board whether to grant them residence.
It has been widely speculated in Canada that if there is no evidence of terrorist connections or criminal records, most of those crossing over will be given legal residence status.
This may soon change and Canada may close its doors on people crossing over for staying on in the country under a Safe Third Country Agreement signed between Ottawa and Washington.
Popularly known as the “smart border” agreement, Canada is required to automatically turn back refugee claimants trying to enter from the US so that America could interrogate them and weigh their claims.
No firm date has been set for implementing the agreement although there are indications here that Bush administration officials want it to go into force as early as spring this year.
Nancy Duarte, spokeswoman for Canada’s foreign ministry, told the media last week that “there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers at our border posts”.
But she asserted that “we are committed to providing protection to those in need and our commitment to refugees is unwavering”.
In 2001, the last year for which full statistics are available, Canada received 44,713 people claiming to be refugees. Of these, 13,493 were “third country” nationals, almost wholly Latin Americans, who entered through the US, according to officials of the Canadian ministry of citizenship and immigration.
In addition to Pakistanis, Arab nationals and other Muslims are also fleeing the US across its land borders to the north.
Under new US rules, citizens of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the UAE and Yemen must register with American immigration by Friday.
Pakistanis and Saudi Arabians must do so by February 21.