Roxham Road is closed but backlogs persist among those waiting for a hearing
His savings have dried up, and he's struggling to pay for food and rent. But like thousands of other asylum seekers, Abdul is still waiting for the federal government to issue him a work permit.
The father of five has years of experience working in sales and customer service at an airport in Mazar-i-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan.
"I don't know how to survive in Canada if I don't have a work permit," said Abdul, whom CBC News has agreed not to identify by his real name. He fears repercussions for his family still in Afghanistan after helping U.S. citizens leave the country.
Abdul provided documentation to CBC News showing his previous work experience and his refugee claim in Canada.
After the Taliban took power in August 2021, Abdul fled his home country with his wife and five children — first to Abu Dhabi, then to the United States, eventually settling in Houston.
He only had a temporary visa in the United States and, concerned about being deported, he crossed into Canada at Roxham Road with his family on Nov. 30, 2022.
That passage is now effectively closed. Under the revised Safe Third Country Agreement announced last month, migrants can no longer claim asylum after crossing Canada's land border, save for some exemptions. Those who do cross into Canada and try to claim asylum will be turned back within 14 days.
Have Ottawa's changes helped?
Thousands who already crossed remain in limbo in Canada. Nearly 40,000 asylum seekers came through Roxham Road in 2022 — the most of any year on record, and many of those are reliant on social assistance.
In the most extreme cases, the long wait can have tragic consequences. Fritznel Richard, an asylum seeker originally from Haiti, was found dead more than a week after attempting to cross from Canada back in the U.S. He had waited more than a year for a work permit before trying to cross the border.
Abdul's meeting with the federal immigration department isn't until July 2024.
The federal government launched an online application last September in an attempt to process claims more quickly.
Mary Rose Sabater, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said the new online application has helped speed up the awarding of work permits.
She said more than 20,000 work permits were awarded to asylum claimants (12,000 of those in Quebec) in the first five months since the new portal was put in place, up significantly from the same time a year earlier.
"We will continue to strengthen our immigration system and ensure that it works well for all, including for the world's most vulnerable," she said.
But advocates and immigration lawyers say the new system — while a welcome improvement — comes with its own problems.
Maryse Poisson, director of social initiatives at the Welcome Collective, a group that helps asylum seekers in Montreal, said many asylum seekers require assistance to simply complete the application, especially those lacking language and computer skills.
"We see a lot of families without a work permit that are stuck in a poverty cycle," she said.
"The only way for them to survive is welfare, which is a really small amount of money with the price of housing. Right now, all of the welfare check goes to paying the rent. So what we see is families that have no money to eat, to transport themselves, to get dressed and also to send the kids to school."
Turning to a food bank
In his case, Abdul said he tried calling the federal and provincial government, and applying for an earlier date through the federal government's new online portal. But since the rest of his family members don't have passports, he was unable to complete the form online.
Abdul doesn't receive social assistance, either, because he arrived in Canada with savings. But with little money left he's asked friends and relatives for loans to pay for his apartment on Montreal's South Shore.
In the meantime, he's been reliant on a food bank near his home and community organizations like the Welcome Collective.
Benjamin Brunot, a Montreal lawyer who represents many asylum seekers, acknowledged the verifications made by the government are necessary, but he said the system is still too cumbersome.
"For sure, if you reduce the wait from six months to four months, it's an improvement," he said. "But for people who wonder how to eat the next day or next week, it's still too long. And we're wasting both the time of refugee claimants and ours because we need more workers in our businesses and restaurants and everywhere."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Benjamin Shingler is an investigative reporter with CBC in Montreal. He specializes in health and social issues, and previously worked at The Canadian Press and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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