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Newfoundland and Labrador experienced in handling wave of refugees

The Gander International Airport
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

With an ongoing refugee crisis, Newfoundland and Labrador is capable of processing more claimants than we are at present.

After all, we have experience with a sudden wave of new arrivals.

From 1985 to 1995, the town of Gander was an entry point for thousands of people from Iran, Vietnam, Cuba, Sri Lanka, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. In 1990 in particular, Immigration recorded 918 refugee claims at Gander - spiking from 310 the year before and drawing international attention.

Those figures are refugee claims only and do not include other migrant entries. In comparison, the province welcomed an average 150 refugees annually through the late 2000s.

"The term that was placed on it was we being the 'hole in the wall.' A lot of people were able to defect on their way through Gander," said Alan Scott, who worked at Gander International Airport at the time.

The airport was a refuelling stop for the shorter-range charter flights of Soviet Aeroflot, East German Interflug and Cubana, on routes crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Travellers were commonly left for at least 45 minutes to an hour in the central Newfoundland terminal, before the call to reboard.

"Sometimes it was remaining in washrooms or a lot of cases passports were flushed down the toilets and it came down to not having the papers to go back on," he said. Sometimes people simply walked up to the nearest Immigration official or RCMP officer.

More dramatic stories circulated in news reports, of people making a run for the nearest Canadian official.

Murray Osmond began work as a federal immigration officer in Gander in 1984. In 1990, he said, it was not uncommon for him to be called in to work, meeting 10 or 20 refugee claimants at a time, with three or four rounds of meetings in a day.

He remembers people arriving in the province with only a carry-on, by intention. Others had only the clothes they wore and whatever was in their pockets.

"They weren't familiar with the process, they weren't aware of whether or not they would be allowed to stay," he said. "There was a lot of unknown, uncertainty."

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