It felt like Canada was being had this week when news came that city officials in New York were buying bus tickets for asylum seekers who wanted to head north to the Canadian border and make a refugee claim at Roxham Road.
Roxham Road is a stretch of well-trod pavement running across the border between Quebec and New York State on which, last year alone, the RCMP intercepted almost 40,000 people seeking refugee status in this country.
Roxham Road has become a busy conduit into Canada because it is not an official border crossing. As such, it is not covered by the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), under which migrants seeking refugee status at an official land port of entry must do so in the first country they arrive in.
The Trudeau government insists it wants to close this loophole through negotiations with its American counterpart. In the past five years, though – during which the Mounties have intercepted more than 100,000 people on Roxham Road – there’s been no progress toward that goal.
And now the mayor of New York, faced with a flood of more than 42,000 Latin American asylum seekers and economic migrants bussed to his city by cynical southern Republican governors, is actively making the situation worse?
This development, along with last year’s record number of people intercepted at Roxham Road, suggests the situation at Canada’s border is about to get worse. It also makes it clear that Canada and the U.S. went into the STCA with very different goals.
The U.S. signed the 2004 agreement in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, and had a single aim: tightening its borders for security reasons. It was not facing a large influx of asylum seekers coming from Canada.
Ottawa, on the other hand, was addressing the fact that one-third of the people who sought refugee status in Canada between 1995 and 2001 arrived via the United States. It hoped the agreement would lessen the demand on the country’s overburdened refugee determination system.
The numbers bear this out. The United Nations refugee agency did a statutory review of the STCA after one year and found that 4,041 people requested refugee status in Canada at an official land port of entry in 2005, but only 66 requested asylum in the U.S.
Clearly, the two countries have different agendas. Roxham Road is a case in point; that well-trod pavement runs in just one direction. As such, it is hard to imagine what interest the Americans might have in hurriedly renegotiating an agreement that, in its current form, allows for a northern overflow valve for vulnerable people treated in an increasingly callous fashion by U.S. politicians.
As for the people fleeing Latin American countries via the U.S.-Mexico border, Canada is a more attractive option than remaining in the United States. Those who make a refugee claim at Roxham Road and pass an initial screening are entitled to health care, social assistance, schooling for their children and a work permit while their claim winds its way through a years-long determination process.
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which by law must provide an oral hearing to anyone making a plausible refugee claim in Canada, saw its backlog of cases jump from 56,322 in January, 2022, to almost 71,000 by December, thanks to the record number of refugee claims made last year at Roxham Road.
And given that close to half of Roxham Road asylum seekers in Canada since 2017 have come from Nigeria and Haiti (with Colombia in a distant third place), it’s safe to assume an influx of people from Central and South America will mean increased traffic there in the coming months.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to get more aggressive on this file. The STCA is clearly not working for Canada. The Liberals must find the diplomatic leverage required to get the U.S. to reopen the agreement and fix the loophole that exempts irregular border crossings. If it manages to do that, it will mean the end of Roxham Road.
But if the U.S. will not co-operate, and if its politicians continue to abuse Canada’s generosity, then Mr. Trudeau will be faced with a tough choice: allow an untenable situation at the border to worsen, or shut it down.
At this point, closing Roxham Road is beginning to look like the inevitable end game, with or without the STCA. Better to do it sooner than later.