Border agents diverted to help with Quebec asylum influx; union fears travel delays

Border security officers are being diverted from across Canada to help with an anticipated spike in the number of asylum seekers crossing irregularly into Quebec.

The Canada Border Services Agency has sent memos across the country advising that agents from other regions will be in Quebec May 28-Sept. 16 to help deal with the influx of refugee claimants crossing the Canada-U.S. border at unofficial entry points.

The measure could mean staff shortages causing delays at major airports like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, as well as land ports like Windsor and Niagara Falls, said Jean-Pierre Fortin, national president of the Customs and Immigration Union.

Security issues could also be an issue, Fortin warned.

"The impact will be that there may be enough resources at Lacolle (Quebec), but they will create other points of pressure across Canada,'' he said.
  
"The end result will be that wait times will increase and security will go down.''

The influx of refugee claimants has been an ongoing pressure point in Quebec for the last few months, with more people coming across non-official entry points along the border: the RCMP intercepted 7,612 refugee claimants between January and April of this year.

Officials are preparing for a spike over the warm summer months. The government is setting up temporary housing units at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, the municipality where the majority of RCMP interceptions of irregular migrants in Quebec take place.

The short-term accommodations are meant to ease pressure on Quebec's resources while plans are still being developed to "triage'' incoming asylum seekers in the hopes of diverting those who may be willing to settle in areas outside Montreal.

But, while the pressure remains significant in Quebec, diverting border security officers from other areas of the country will create new pressure points at official ports of entry, especially during the summer, Fortin predicted.

"You have to keep in mind that the summer period is our busiest time for our officers. People are going to the United States, Americans are coming to Canada, it's the vacation period so obviously that's a time we are extremely busy.''

Fortin wants the government to hire more staff to deal with the problems, not re-deploy existing officers. The union argues it has been losing officers to attrition over the last year, and that only half of those who have left have been replaced.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters in Saskatoon Thursday

The memo to employees was a routine one sent every year to see if some employees would be willing to be assigned to another location or work overtime during the busy summer months, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Thursday.

"CBSA makes sure the principal responsibility of managing those ports of entry is properly managed with the adequate staff numbers in place to cope with the volumes,'' Goodale said in Saskatoon.

"The number that would be relocated in this particular configuration would be very small.''

Toronto's Pearson airport will not be impacted by any reallocation of staff, and will, in fact, have more staff than last summer, including 26 per cent more summer student staff, who free up regular officers to focus on priority duties, an official in Goodale's office said in a statement.

"We are going to work very, very hard to keep our service standards high, as we did last summer very successfully, but it's a challenge because volumes are so large,'' the minister said, referring to the number of travellers who traverse Canada every summer.

"It's a volume challenge that CBSA is trying to forecast as carefully as they can in advance, make sure they have their resources in the right places at the right time to handle that extraordinary summer volume.''