Four asylum seekers have been prevented from entering Canada at an unofficial entry point along the border with the United States since the government started turning people away over concerns about the spread of COVID-19 two weeks ago.
The new protocol raises the risk that asylum seekers may try to cross the border at other points of entry, refugee advocates say, which could be dangerous because of harsh conditions and lack of support.
The six people were turned away between March 21, when the new measures came into effect, and April 2, Canada Border Services Agency spokesman Louis-Carl Brissette Lesage said. In early March, between 70 and 80 asylum seekers had been crossing daily, according to Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union. He said most were originally from Africa.
Two weeks ago Canada stopped allowing asylum seekers to enter the country at unauthorized points of entry. More than 57,000 people have entered Canada through such border crossings since 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump announced a crackdown on illegal immigration. The majority of crossings have occurred at a single entry point along Roxham Road in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que.
Marc-André Veselovsky of Jesuit Refugee Service Canada said he has heard from contacts that taxis continue to take people to the border, despite the main crossing being closed. He said this means people may be trying to cross where they would not get caught, calling it “more dangerous” because once they reach the other side, they would not have access to the support that had existed previously at Roxham Road.
For the past three years, Janet McFetridge, a member of Plattsburgh Cares, a coalition of activist groups that assists immigrants, has delivered gloves and mittens to asylum seekers and stuffed animals to children, before they crossed the border. She also picks up trash that clutters the road, pieces of paper and other items that people dropped when they were fearful and moving quickly, she said.
Ms. McFetridge said she last saw two refugees on March 16, when she was at Roxham Road primarily to pick up garbage.
“I remember them seeming to be very, very scared. They crossed quickly,” she said. Ms. McFetridge said that while people are no longer crossing at Roxham Road, it is possible that they are trying to cross at other places.
“I am concerned about the people who are fleeing terrible situations and violence and I’m just wondering if they’re safe,” she said.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), said that having people move through Roxham Road “suited everyone but the smugglers.”
“It is pretty much inevitable that people will now move to alternative routes,” she said.
Refugee groups are also worried about how people rejected at Canada’s border are treated by American authorities. This week, the CCR, Amnesty International Canada, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers and BC Civil Liberties Association reiterated their call for the government to reopen the border to refugee claims, arguing that turning back refugee claimants to the U.S. violates Canada’s international legal obligations.
“From moral, public health and legal perspectives, closing the border to refugee claimants is wrong,” Alex Neve, secretary-general at Amnesty International Canada, said in a statement.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the government is “urgently discussing” with its U.S. partners the possibility that the United States will deport asylum seekers Canada turns away at the border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson Michael Niezgoda had said in a statement that if asylum seekers cannot be returned to Mexico or Canada, the agency "will work with interagency partners to secure return to the alien’s country of origin and hold the alien for the shortest time possible.”