Canada and the United States have agreed to stem the flow of asylum seekers into this country by closing unofficial crossings such as Quebec’s Roxham Road as of midnight on Saturday, a move advocates say will lead to even more dangerous conditions for migrants.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Friday they had renegotiated the Safe Third Country Agreement and that just hours later, migrants at unofficial border crossings such as Roxham Road can be turned away. Under the previous agreement, both Canada and the U.S. were prevented from turning away asylum seekers in places other than official border entries.
Mr. Trudeau has faced months of political pressure to address the rise in asylum seekers. Last year, nearly 40,000 migrants entered Canada via irregular crossings. In recent weeks, the Quebec government has been vocal about the disproportionate burden this has placed on the province, as well as on the country’s overextended settlement infrastructure.
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As part of the revised agreement, Canada announced openings for 15,000 legal migrants from the Western Hemisphere over the coming year.
But refugee lawyers and other experts say the new policy will only make things worse for already vulnerable migrants.
“This is going to mean more dead migrants,” said immigration and refugee lawyer Debbie Rachlis. For the past several years, migrants crossing into Canada have chosen Roxham Road because of its relative safety. It is as a well-lit, controlled access point that is monitored around the clock by the RCMP.
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Now, she said, migrants may turn to more dangerous paths of entry. She pointed to the example at the southern border of Manitoba last year, where a family of four from India were found frozen to death trying to make their way to the U.S. They are believed to have been victims of a human-smuggling operation.
“When people are desperate, and when people are fleeing for their lives to reach safety, they will do desperate things,” Ms. Rachlis said. The new agreement may cut the number of refugee claimants, “but it does so at the expense of human lives.”
For those who do make it into Canada safely, experts say, the policy may discourage them from applying for refugee status.
Under the current system, asylum seekers submit information to the government as part of their application, including biographical details, and a health screening. They’re entitled, in return, to a number of supports while awaiting the results of their application. This includes access to social supports, temporary housing, and the ability to apply for a work permit.
“They’re documented. They’re known. From an administrative perspective, that’s good,” said Christina Clark-Kazak, a University of Ottawa professor who studies forced migration.
“Once people realize that making an asylum claim means they’re going to be sent back to the U.S., they’re just going to go underground,” she said. “They’re going to be invisible in the system.”
This will make them even more vulnerable to exploitation, she said: To irregular work, to exploitative working conditions, and, potentially, to trafficking.
Over the past several months, Quebec Premier François Legault and the federal Conservatives have pressed Mr. Trudeau to shut down Roxham Road.
Still, the news of the deal took many by surprise. The details of the policy change were only announced on Friday afternoon, and put into effect by Saturday morning.
On Friday afternoon, Erika Gonzalez, 28, had just arrived at the bus stop in Plattsburgh, N.Y., the last stop before the U.S. border, and a short drive from Roxham Road. She said in Spanish that she had fled from Colombia with her two daughters to protect them from guerrilla violence. She planned to cross into Canada at Roxham Road that same afternoon. She did not know until then that the crossing would be closed later that night.
A young man on the same bus, Jason Reyes, 19, was also from Colombia. He said he had fled Sinaloa cartel violence there, and planned to meet his parents, who are in Calgary. He, too, had not known until minutes earlier that he could be among the last ones to cross at Roxham Road.
David Cote, an immigration and refugee lawyer in Windsor, Ont., said he’d already received a number of e-mails from clients by Friday afternoon from refugee claimants who have been living in temporary shelters and hotels there since crossing into Canada from the U.S.
“This has come up so quickly, and people haven’t had a chance to respond,” he said. “If people had known beforehand, they could have made a plan.”