A Quiet Hero: How a Canadian Retiree Became an Unexpected Savior for Asylum Seekers

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Frantz André isn’t a lawyer – but he spends his days helping hundreds of people tackle the immigration system, free of charge

It was a chilly Wednesday evening in February, and the city of Montreal was settling down. Through the frosted glass walls of his office, Frantz André could see the silhouettes of people bundled in winter coats shuffling through the halls, heading home. But André’s work was only getting started.

On his desk towered precarious stacks of manila folders stuffed thick with immigration paperwork. Each represented a family that André was helping seek refuge in Canada. These dossiers, as he called them, contained the contours of entire lives – decades of addresses, jobs and migration histories. After that night, André spend another 48 hours holed up in this office, weaving those details into formal applications for asylum.

André isn’t an immigration lawyer. A retired businessman with a background in the hospitality industry, he started lending his time to migrants’ issues as a volunteer a little over a decade ago. His involvement picked up over time, and eventually he became well-versed in the labyrinthine workings of Canada’s immigration system. When he retired in 2017, he decided to dedicate his newly vacant schedule to helping people apply for asylum on a full-time basis, and at no cost to migrants themselves.

Today, André has more than 400 dossiers open, each corresponding to a claim. Across the province of Quebec, word has spread about the kindly retiree who helps people get their “brown papers”, a colloquial term for the documentation that denotes official asylum-seeker status. The papers are valuable because they allow people to get work, housing and other forms of assistance while they wait out their claims. Though André has always been busy, he’s become particularly sought-after over the past year.

In recent years, Canada has seen a significant increase in asylum seekers, many driven by civil unrest or natural disasters in their countries of origin. In 2022, immigration and border agencies processed more than 91,000 asylum claims, a more than threefold increase compared to the year prior. When compared against 2019, the year before pandemic restrictions curtailed travel, last year’s numbers still represent an over 40% increase.

In January of 2023 alone, the most recent month with available data, nearly 11,000 people filed asylum claims, double the number for the same time a year prior. Nearly half of these claimants entered the country through unofficial border crossings; the most notable of these is a path called Roxham Road, a junction between New York state and the province of Quebec that has recently become the subject of political consternation and heavy news coverage. (The crossing was closed in late March.)

Amid this backdrop, an informal network composed of WhatsApp group chats and word of mouth is directing an unprecedented number of newcomers André’s way. He rarely turns people down, and he bristles at what he perceives as a hostile tone in the press and among the public toward recent migrants.

“They’re not numbers,” André said. “They’re human beings.”

Source: The Guardian