Roxham Road refugees in New Brunswick struggling to find legal help

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Four migrants arrive at the unofficial border crossing point at Roxham Road, in Québec, on March 23.Roger Lemoyne/The Globe and Mail

Nearly 200 asylum seekers in New Brunswick who were bused to the province from the now-closed border crossing at Roxham Road are struggling to find help as they navigate the labyrinthine Canadian immigration system.

With just a single refugee legal clinic in a province that dealt with only 30 asylum claimants in 2022, many of the 187 recently-arrived men, women and children are trying to fill out complicated forms without sound advice. It’s a task made even harder because most aren’t proficient in either of Canada’s two official languages.

The New Brunswick Refugee Clinic is run by law student Olivia Huynh, who serves as both executive director and the sole full-time staff member. The province itself does not provide legal assistance for immigration and refugee cases, meaning asylum seekers have to either go through Ms. Huynh or hire a private lawyer.

Ms. Huynh said the organization is helping migrants fill out forms and holding instructional presentations, but it lacks the capacity to offer personalized consultations for every case.

“Some of them, after the presentations, did end up finding a private lawyer, but the majority of them are not able to afford a private lawyer and there are no legal aid certificates for refugee claims in New Brunswick,” she said. “There’s no other organization at the moment that can provide them with legal services.”

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada started transferring migrants to provinces such as Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick to alleviate the influx of thousands of people arriving in Quebec through the irregular border crossing at Roxham Road, which was closed just over a month ago. While the federal government provides the New Brunswick migrants with hotel rooms and three meals a day, there is little other help in navigating the system.

As of April, 2023, the clinic has reviewed the claims of 40 families, according to David Kelly, communications officer with the government of New Brunswick. He said the province is also funding another full-time lawyer for the refugee clinic, who will most likely start working in mid-May.

“The province, meanwhile, is providing funding to support the clinic until federal funding can be accessed to ensure New Brunswick has the appropriate levels of services to support the influx of asylum claimants,” said Mr. Kelly in a statement.

The Globe and Mail contacted the federal Immigration Department but was told nobody could comment with the ongoing public service strike.

One refugee claimant, a 24-year-old man from Venezuela, came to Canada more than two months ago, fleeing persecution. The Globe is not using his name because of the risk of reprisals if he is deported and returned to his home country. He first sought refuge in Colombia, only to encounter xenophobia and ill treatment. He then made the long, arduous journey from Central America to Mexico, before eventually navigating through the United States to Canada through Roxham Road.

“There is no future in Venezuela,” he said in Spanish. “Here in Canada, I see myself in the future having a kid who won’t go through everything I went through.”

When he arrived in Quebec, he said he was put on a bus without anyone properly explaining to him where he was going – which is how he ended up in New Brunswick.

Upon arrival, he was instructed to fill out a form. He does not speak English, so he was unsure about his answers.

“I’m afraid they might deport me for a process I did wrong without really knowing what I was doing,” he said.

The language barrier is one of the most difficult issues for the New Brunswick legal clinic. Interpreters are mostly volunteers provided by the Multicultural Association of Fredericton, but Ms. Huynh said it is difficult to get help on short notice.

“Even though the volunteers have been really amazing and dedicated, they also have full-time jobs and they have other commitments,” she said. “They can’t be in the hotels 40 hours a week.”

Aditya Rao, a human rights lawyer and member of the Madhu Verma Migrant Justice Centre, a human rights organization in the Atlantic provinces, sent a joint letter with the Atlantic Human Rights Centre and Amnesty International to federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser raising concerns about the situation in the province.

The groups stressed the importance of legal representation as the refugee status process is intricate, such as providing proof of the person’s travel history and reasons for escaping their home countries.

“The federal government, when they transferred refugee claimants to New Brunswick, they should have also thought about what sort of support they would have received after arriving,” Mr. Rao said in an interview.

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