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A sign advising people that entrance to Canada via Roxham road is illegal is shown on the Canada/US border in Hemmingford, Que., on March 25. The irregular border crossing in Quebec has been used by tens of thousands of migrants in recent years.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

When Kabul fell, she prepared the poison.

It was August, 2021, and rumour had it that Taliban fighters were forcing women into marriages, a form of sexual violence later confirmed by human-rights groups. The 27-year-old woman was caring for two younger sisters, and in that dark uncertain period she briefly believed they would be better dying by their own hand than living a life where they “die every day.”

Sitting safely in a Montreal office, she cries and shakes softly as she describes that time, now many long journeys behind her. She and two of her siblings entered Canada in February, through Roxham Road, the irregular border crossing in Quebec used by tens of thousands of migrants in recent years. (The Globe is not using her name because of the risk of reprisals or extortion threats against her family in Afghanistan.)

But they took that dangerous step only after 18 fearful months of trying to come to Canada as refugees through more conventional pathways, before being blocked by bureaucratic delays and quirks of foreign policy, according to friends and potential sponsors.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden announced the renegotiation of the Safe Third Country Agreement last month, which has effectively closed Roxham Road. The move followed intense public pressure, especially in Quebec, where politicians such as Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet bemoaned that the country was offering asylum seekers an “all-inclusive” package.

But advocates say that, far from seeking to jump the queue, some migrants were simply pushed to use the crossing after coming up against hurdles in Canada’s established refugee system – problems that will continue to funnel people toward the border or leave them stranded in dangerous situations overseas.

“This woman is exactly the type of person who Canada has said in all of its messaging that it is who we want to protect,” said Maureen Silcoff, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer who is not involved with the case. “If this woman came to Canada now, she would be barred, she could be put in a prison in the U.S. and possibly deported to Afghanistan. … That’s the hypocrisy of the new version of the agreement.”

Refugees who crossed the border at Roxham Road are not less “legitimate” than those who arrived through more official channels, Ms. Silcoff noted. The claims of people who entered the country irregularly are accepted at a similar rate as applicants overall – between 50 and 60 per cent of the time over the last five years of data, according to figures from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

But migrants may have felt the need to make the treacherous journey to Roxham Road because the two more standard routes to protection in Canada are slow and filled with bureaucratic logjams.

Before 2017, most refugees came to Canada either through sponsorship or by making an “inland” application at a port of entry or from inside the country. But being sponsored requires clearance from the federal government before boarding a plane, and that process can take years. Claiming asylum at an official port of entry is no easier: Canada has visa requirements for almost 150 countries, so for most refugees simply flying to Toronto or Vancouver is not an option.

A long wait can be dangerous if a person has fled their home country or is living precariously in a refugee camp, said Frantz André, spokesperson for the Montreal-based Comité d’Action des Personnes Sans Statut (Action Committee for People Without Status).

“When your life is in danger, you’re running,” he said.

The Canadian Council for Refugees recently called on the federal government to smooth the path of refugee claimants – for example by offering special visas like those available to Ukrainians during the Russian invasion of their country – in part to reduce the number of migrants having to cross at Roxham Road.

“They should not be forced to resort to an irregular crossing, on many occasions risking their lives and their families’ lives in harsh winter conditions, and be demonized for doing so,” the statement said.

Although the federal government has committed to resettling at least 40,000 people from Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover – and, separately, accepting 15,000 migrants from the Western hemisphere as part of its deal with the U.S. – the Afghan woman’s case was complicated by the fact that she had fled to neighbouring Iran.

During the war, she was hired as a translator and then a psychological counsellor by a humanitarian organization working with survivors of gender-based violence in Afghanistan. The accounts of the women, and the attempt to help them, both haunted and inspired her, she said.

When the Taliban seized control of the country in 2021, life became dangerous immediately. Not only was she a female aid worker, a group that was a target of reprisals, but her family belonged to the historically persecuted Hazara ethnic minority.

Her former fiancé made the situation worse by threatening to denounce her to the Taliban if she didn’t marry him. One day, a man on a motorbike sprayed water on her face. For a few terrible moments, she thought it was acid – the intended message.

Fleeing was difficult, but she finally secured visas to Iran for her and two siblings. A Canadian former colleague then tried to arrange sponsorship for her to come to Canada as a refugee, but the routes were all blocked. One option required certification by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but the international body was not able to do so in Iran. Another option required fingerprinting by the Canadian government, which doesn’t have an embassy in the country.

Eventually the sponsorship group pulled out because they could not afford to have their fundraised money held in trust possibly for years while her case made its way through the system. Meanwhile, she was arrested on the streets of Tehran for immodest dress, and the country began to feel unsafe.

“It takes time for a private named sponsorship to be processed and time is the ‘enemy’ of refugees,” said Rebecca McTaggart, a member of the group that was trying to sponsor the woman and her brother and sister. “They were desperate to be safe, and desperate people make desperate choices.”

First, the three siblings flew to Brazil, with the intention of staying there. But random acts of street violence suffered by fellow Afghans in the crime-plagued country made her feel at risk again. So she decided to travel thousands of kilometres overland to Canada, where she thought she could finally be safe.

After a harrowing journey that included three days of walking through the Panamanian jungle and scaling the border wall between Mexico and the U.S. on a rope ladder, she arrived at Roxham Road.

The ordeal was worth it, to be in Canada surrounded by such “nice people,” she said. The siblings now plan to make a life in Southern Ontario while their refugee claims are processed. But she wishes there had been another way.

“It was a hard journey.”

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