Michael Barutciski is an associate professor and the co-ordinator of Canadian studies at York University‘s Glendon Campus. He has advised governments and the UN on refugee protection for more than two decades.
Roxham Road – an unofficial border crossing that runs across the Canada-U.S. border between Quebec and upstate New York – is, without question, the site of Canada’s biggest irregular migration challenge. In 2022, nearly 40,000 asylum claimants were intercepted by the RCMP outside regular ports of entry in Quebec; that number in the rest of the country, in total, was just 369. The province’s community organizations and public services have been overwhelmed, said Premier François Legault, who has joined others in calling for the passage’s closure – “the sooner the better,” as he wrote in The Globe and Mail. He has recently spoken out, in the hopes of spurring a genuine response from the federal government.
But closing Roxham Road to migrants from the south cannot be a genuine solution if there is not co-operation from the U.S. Ultimately, the lack of an explicit guarantee concerning border collaboration between Canada and the U.S. is the problem at the heart of the crisis; despite the existence of a binational action plan for perimeter security, the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the U.S. covers only official border crossings, and there is no formal responsibility-sharing agreement dealing with asylum seekers who use irregular crossings such as Roxham Road. A sustainable solution requires amending the STCA so that it applies to all crossings, not just official ports of entry – and doing so will require diplomacy.
The U.S., which of course wants to maintain law and order in its border regions, has a long history of negotiation and collaboration with the Latin American and Caribbean countries that were involved in previous northward migration challenges. Thirty years ago, for example, the U.S. transformed its naval base at Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay into a large temporary refugee camp for Haitians. Now, there is a sense that Washington is ready to lead a historic push for hemispheric-wide mobilization to address common challenges. This desire for a shared, multilateral response to irregular migration is why President Joe Biden was so keen on getting the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection – a pact between 21 governments across the Americas – adopted last June.
‘Irregular migration’ larger issue than Roxham Road: U.S. ambassador to Canada
This is an opportunity for Canada to proactively show that it is a committed partner in this effort. In the spirit of co-ordination, Canada could propose to resettle refugees blocked at the Mexican border with the objective of alleviating the burden on the U.S. and Central American countries. It is always preferable, after all, to resettle refugees in an orderly manner, rather than having to handle irregular migrant flows. Canada could also follow the U.S.’s lead by offering expanded pathways for Central Americans to legally migrate for work, which can deter irregular migration and encourage safer options. Canada can become an active donor of development assistance and co-operation to help stabilize migration flows and support host countries.
But in any negotiation, there will be a quid pro quo. The Canadian embassy in Washington should monitor developments around recent allegations that U.S. border guards have accepted payment to bring irregular migrants to Roxham Road. Likewise, The New York Times has reported that New York City officials are buying bus tickets for refugees to enter Canada at Roxham Road. At the same time, the U.S. Border Patrol recently noted that the number of irregular migrants crossing from Quebec to the U.S. is increasing, too. Canada should use the local situation in Quebec as leverage with the U.S., as an example of how it is not living up to its commitment to co-ordinate across borders in addressing smuggling networks.
A long-term solution can only come from renegotiating the STCA so that border collaboration is not limited to official crossings. This amendment obviously fits well with the spirit of the STCA and the objectives of the binational action plan, and aligns with Washington’s momentum on the regional migration file. But if negotiations with the U.S. continue to stall, Ottawa will only face broader pressure in the months to come. Asylum seekers from Roxham Road have been transferred outside the province, and if Europe’s precedent is any indication, it is likely that other provinces will soon claim that they have reached their capacity, too. The Trudeau government must therefore prepare the ground for a long-term diplomatic solution, in the near term.
In the meantime, all levels of government should reassure Canadians that the issue is being taken seriously. We cannot lose sight of the larger stakes involving the public’s trust in our immigration system. If we believe in fair and defendable asylum principles within an orderly migration framework, then the Roxham Road problem must be resolved through diplomacy.