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Asylum seekers, poorly dressed for the weather, board a shuttle bus after being processed by the RCMP at the U.S-Canada border on Roxham Road, in Hemmingford, Que., on Jan. 14.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

The death of a Haitian migrant near Quebec’s Roxham Road has reignited a debate in the province about how to respond to an increase in asylum seekers entering the country through the irregular border crossing.

The body of Fritznel Richard, 44, was found on Jan. 5 in a wooded area near the popular unofficial entry point, about an hour’s drive south of Montreal. Provincial police said he was trying to reach family in the United States, and that he likely died of hypothermia after becoming lost.

A migrant’s advocacy group that is helping the family said Mr. Richard was originally from Haiti, had entered Canada through Roxham Road at an unknown time, and had been struggling to obtain a work permit. “Unfortunately, he was in a precarious situation and was not able to make ends meet,” said Hady Anne, a spokesperson for Solidarity Across Borders.

Hélène Gravel, who lives next to the U.S. border on Roxham Road, said that in the past few months, she and her neighbours have seen more people crossing through the forest near her house to get to the U.S., including families.

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Hélène Gravel looks out the window at her home on Roxham Road.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

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Hélène Gravel walks toward the open field on her property where she frequently sees people and families crossing near the U.S.-Canada border.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

“Even if there aren’t many of them, we’re not going to wait for them to die in the forest to do something,” she said.

Mr. Richard’s death has placed a renewed spotlight on Roxham Road’s unofficial border crossing, at which tens of thousands of migrants have entered Canada in recent years, largely because of the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. The long-standing pact means that border agents from each country must turn away asylum seekers from the other if they present themselves at official land border crossings.

The unassuming cul-de-sac near the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., customs has become an “official nonofficial point of entry” as a result, said Christina Clark-Kazak, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs.

Concrete blocks and rocks block roads on both sides of the border in the sparsely populated area. A narrow gravel path and signs with information about the asylum-seeking process lead migrants from the U.S. into RCMP installations.

The RCMP intercepted 34,478 asylum seekers who did not use official ports of entry to enter Quebec between January and November of 2022, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada data, compared to just 316 in the rest of the country.

Federal opposition parties have repeatedly called for a review of the Safe Third Country Agreement, but anxiety about the situation has been sharpest in Quebec.

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A view of Roxham Road heading toward the U.S.-Canada border.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

“The federal government must renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States as soon as possible,” said Ewan Sauves, spokesperson for Premier François Legault.

“There is an urgent need to act on Roxham Road,” said Mr. Sauves, adding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “must ensure that the other provinces take charge of the proportion of asylum seekers that is theirs. It is not fair that it is only Quebec that has to manage this.”

Quebec is “concerned” about the increase in asylum applications since 2017 and its “ability to welcome these people with dignity and provide them with adequate services,” said Quebec Ministry of Immigration spokesperson Arianne Méthot.

The Safe Third Country Agreement is “an important tool,” said Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada spokesperson Jeffrey MacDonald, adding that modernizing the agreement “has been a priority for the government for several years.” He did not provide details “due to the sensitive nature of our bilateral discussions with the U.S.”

Mr. MacDonald also pointed out that, in 2021-22, Quebec received over $697-million in compensation from the federal government to “provide settlement and integration services in the province.”

Frédéric Bastien, a prominent nationalist author and former Parti Québécois leadership candidate, filed a private prosecution against the Prime Minister on Jan. 12 accusing Mr. Trudeau of violating Canadian law by encouraging “illegal” border crossings.

In his court filing, Mr. Bastien cites a tweet by Mr. Trudeau from 2017 welcoming refugees to Canada, which read, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith.” The Prime Minister issued the message shortly after then-U.S. president Donald Trump banned travel to the U.S. from several majority-Muslim countries.

In an interview, Mr. Bastien also noted that the Trudeau government has erected facilities at Roxham Road that include instructions on how to apply for asylum.

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A sign on Roxham Road.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

“If this is not encouraging migrants to enter through Roxham Road I don’t know what is,” he said.

Public opinion appears to be on his side. Justice for Quebec, an organization led by Mr. Bastien, commissioned a poll late last year showing that 68 per cent of Quebeckers wanted to “close” the border crossing. A survey last spring by the respected polling firm Leger – commissioned by the Legault government and obtained by the Journal de Montréal newspaper – put the figure at 60 per cent.

But “stricter border enforcement policies correlate with increases in riskier crossings to evade authorities, and increases in tragic deaths” along borders globally, said Alison Mountz, professor at Wilfrid Laurier University and Canada Research Chair in Global Migration.

Ms. Gravel, who sees countless migrant buses and RCMP vehicles go by her property every day on Roxham Road, said that the flow is currently “very well-managed.” The RCMP “takes care of it,” she said.

And closing the passage “is not a solution,” said Mr. Anne, of Solidarity Across Borders. “Do you think that [the closing of] Roxham Road will stop migrants?” The group advocates for open borders and the termination of the Safe Third Country Agreement so that asylum seekers could go through regular customs to cross both ways.

He blames the agreement and the long wait for a work permit for Mr. Richard’s death, adding that he knows of several other people in the same situation. “Migrants are not looking for help, they want to work,” he said.

With reports from The Canadian Press

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