It’s hot, humid, and spookily quiet. The green army issue tents are pitched in neat rows. Inside, men lie back on army issue camp beds, staring at the canvas ceiling.
Near the small Canadian town of Saint-Bernard-De-Lacolle, authorities are scrambling to deal with an influx of refugees who've walked across the border from the United States — and want to make Canada their home.
What are they fleeing? “Trump,” Esse, a middle-aged Haitian man who wanted only his first name used, told BuzzFeed News.
Esse, who first came to the US five years ago, used to live in Florida. He didn’t want his photograph taken, and as he spoke, slowly and carefully enunciating only a few words, he kept a lookout for the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) personnel. They didn’t want him to speak to journalists, he said.
He had been in the camp for four days, arriving at the border on Monday. Yes, they were looking after him, he said, and yes, he was “OK”; conditions in the camp were fine. But the food was, he shrugged, spreading his hands, “so-so," and he smiled.
Esse is one of an unknown number of Haitians who've fled the US for Canada. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump warned that the Temporary Protected Status granted to Haitians after the 2010 earthquake would expire in January 2018. That may mean 58,000 people could be returned to a country still struggling to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed 230,000 people.
The news from Trump worried Haitians in the US — many are still waiting on official green card status — and sparked an unexpected migration north.
Spreading through word of mouth, text, WhatsApp, and Facebook, Haitians have headed for one particular spot on the US–Canadian border: Roxham Road.
As you approach it on the Canadian side, you wind past bucolic villages with small shingled houses and carefully planted gardens. It's a sweetly nondescript location, and one ill-prepared to become a major illegal crossing point. On Wednesday, as many as 400 refugees were reported to have crossed the border, overwhelming officials.
One 72-year-old resident, who had lived on the road for 20 years, told BuzzFeed News that she’d never witnessed anything like it.
“There were about 10 or 12 people a week, and it was normal for us,” Helene, 72, said. “But now they are all coming here.”
“It’s horrible. I had to close all my windows and live inside the house. There was one car a day, now there are hundreds. And buses and journalists. Everything.” She continued: “Everyone was telling me, ‘you are living in a paradise,’ now it’s no more. It’s hell.”
Just down from her home Canadian authorities have set up to deal with the influx. They've pitched a white tent, open on two sides, in a grove of trees, and CBSA personnel stand outside. Under the canvas, adults sit in the shade, the mothers carefully watching their small children playing outside.
CBSA staff check the identity papers of people arriving from the US. Then the new arrivals are placed on school buses and driven to the main camp, just down the road from the official Champlain-St. Bernard de Lacolle Border Crossing.
When the yellow buses pull up, just up the road from the tents, the asylum-seekers are quickly shepherded into another building. There, if their papers are in order, they are immediately placed on larger buses and taken to Montreal, where they'll be housed either in the city's Olympic Stadium or in a former hospital that has been reopened for the purpose.
Those who are left are taken down to the camp, which is pitched in a little dell beneath tall pines that attract bugs and don't offer enough shade.
CBSA officials on the scene declined to speak to BuzzFeed News. The idea of a camp to house refugees fleeing the US is a controversial topic.
In a statement, a spokesperson disputed the notion that there was a "camp set-up." Instead, the statement insisted, "the tents allow the asylum seekers to have temporary shelter against the elements so that CBSA may continue its orderly processing of security screening when they arrive at the border."
The tents, the statement added, were just one measure in place for processing the refugees. But there were no details about how long those in tents would remain, or what would happen to them once the people staying in them leave.
Carl Voisvert, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which was assisting at the site, appeared unsure about how big the crisis is. He confirmed that the majority of the people arriving were originally from Haiti, but he said he had no idea how many were there — and directed BuzzFeed News’ inquiries back to the Border Services, which declined to answer.
Red Cross workers, including one medical officer, could be seen in the camp, but the most obvious and active presence was that of the army.
There were 120 soldiers, mostly from a nearby Quebec base, working on the site. All day in the camp, soldiers could be seen shifting materials, setting up tents. When BuzzFeed News arrived on Thursday morning 25 tents were up, each with 16 camp beds, and four — the ones with people inside — with basic wooden floors and lighting.
By Thursday afternoon, more tents were up. The majority remained empty as of Thursday afternoon. As dusk fell, more soldiers arrived, with heavy equipment and supplies. An ambulance tucked in behind trees, its engine idling, as soldiers worked nearby.
Public affairs officer Navy Lieutenant Eliane Trahan, of the 2nd Canadian Division, emphasized that the army’s presence was only logistical.
“We are just building tents here, and making sure that they are more comfortable,” she told BuzzFeed News. Pressed on the coordination between services, she said while they had been in touch with the various agencies managing the camp, information was scarce.
And an international presence was absent. “The UN… I am not sure. No, no contact from them. To be honest I would like to hear from them.”
Meanwhile, control in the camp is tight. Reporters buzzed around the edges, grating on the nerves of the soldiers who worked through the heat and humidity. Occasionally, a bus would arrive, quickly deposit a load of refugees, and roar off again in a screech of dust.
Godfry, from Nigeria, who arrived like Esse on Monday, explained why he'd made the crossing: “In my country there is a lot of things that are wrong. I am bisexual and in my country it is not allowed. If I had stayed I either would have been lynched or put in jail for 14 years. When I had the opportunity I had to leave.
“When I got to the United States, I thought it would be easier for me but it wasn’t. But when I heard that there was a chance that here was open for people to come here.”
“I want to believe that Canada is going to be better than America,” Godfry said. Esse echoed his thoughts, but neither man knew what would happen to them in the next days, months, or years.
“I am leaving United States for Canada,” Esse said, again, but with a little less hope in his voice.