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Asylum-seekers flocking to Canada

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LACOLLE, Quebec — Ronald Blanchet sees them every day, trudging up the road from the U.S. border post to his Canadian immigration station at the crossing south of Montreal.

Tired, frustrated and usually from Pakistan, refugee-seekers are flocking to this crossing between Lacolle, Quebec, and Champlain, N.Y. They say they want out of the United States because of real or rumored security steps in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"They ask us to register there, so I left," said Farooq, a 26-year-old Pakistani who refused to give his last name, of new U.S. regulations that require nonimmigrants from Pakistan and other countries to register with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

He was among 21 who turned up on Jan. 16, about triple the usual number seeking political asylum. The night before, Blanchet called in extra help from Montreal's Dorval Airport to deal with a rush of 41 that crammed the immigration office he directs.

From the beginning of the year through Monday, Blanchet's border post had 243 people arrive seeking refugee status. Of those, 171 — 70 percent were Pakistani. In all of 2002, Pakistanis made up 41 percent of those seeking asylum.

Pakistanis feel they have been targeted because their Muslim country used to have close ties to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and because many al-Qaida fugitives are believed to be hiding there.

In the five days after Christmas, more than 200 people showed up at Lacolle, requiring Blanchet to get a trailer to house them while they awaited processing.

"I'm trying to detect trends," Blanchet said. "People are telling me they are moving because they are afraid of the registration program."

The border rush appears mostly isolated to the Lacolle crossing, the main route between Montreal and New York City. Rene Mercier, a spokesman for Canada's immigration department, said he was unaware of any developing trend at other border points. Farooq flew into New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport from Pakistan on Jan. 14 in hopes of starting a new life. A Shia Muslim, he said he felt threatened by the Sunni Muslim government back home in Sial Kot in eastern Pakistan. Other Pakistanis in New York warned him of trouble, though, saying the new requirement to register with U.S. authorities by Feb. 21 could bring his detention and even deportation.

"They said it was better to go to Canada than stay" in the United States, Farooq said.

So he took a journey made by hundreds in recent weeks, riding a bus from New York City to Plattsburgh, N.Y., then riding a cab to the last highway exit a mile from the border, and walking the rest of the way.

"Now I have no money and no place to stay," he said while waiting to be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed in a process that can take six hours.

The U.S. registration requirement is part of efforts to better track foreign visitors, but complaints have emerged of unnecessary detentions of people seeking to register. Blanchet said that has started rumors in the Pakistani community of New York that registering means getting deported and the Canadian border will soon close to refugee-seekers.

"I think some people are playing with rumors to get money from their clientele," he said.

Janet Dench of the Canadian Council of Refugees in Montreal said new laws in Canada and the United States have caused concern among refugee-seekers. Canada's regulations include tighter initial screening of applicants, and the two countries have signed an agreement that requires foreigners to apply for refugee status in the country in which they land. Called the safe third country agreement, it allows Canada to deny entry to refugee claimants crossing the land border from the United States, based on the argument that those claimants already are in a safe place.

That means people like Farooq, who flew to New York and then traveled to Canada to seek refugee status, would be returned to the United States to seek asylum there unless they have family in Canada.

The agreement signed in December has yet to take effect, Mercier said.

When it does, Dench said, Canada will turn away large numbers of refugee-seekers without hearing their cases. She noted a previous influx of Pakistani refugee-seekers occurred in June due to rumors of the safe third country agreement.