What is Roxham Road? Why people are being turned away at the border

Published 2023-03-29 15:23

Critics worry new rules will make crossing more dangerous 


People crossing the border between Quebec and the U.S. hoping to start a new life in Canada could be turned back.

That is because Canada and the U.S. have negotiated a new agreement that will mean many asylum seekers will be sent back even after they have crossed the border.

In the old agreement, once people made it to Canada, they were allowed to apply for asylum (protection by the Canadian government.)

The new agreement was announced on Friday when U.S. President Joe Biden was visiting Ottawa.

These new rules are meant to address unofficial border crossings like Roxham Road at the border of New York and Quebec. The Roxham Road crossing has been a hot topic of political debate for years.

Many, including Quebec Premier François Legault, have called on the federal government to do more about these crossings and are pleased with the new rules.

However, critics say that preventing people from crossing at places like Roxham Road will make it more dangerous for asylum seekers.

What is Roxham Road?

If you’ve ever travelled by car to the U.S., you went through a border crossing, where officials checked your passport and decided if they would let you through after answering some questions.

But the border between Canada and the U.S. is long and there are some places where you can walk across and no one is there to check your documents.

Those are called unofficial border crossings, and Roxham Road is one of them.

It’s on the border between Quebec and New York state, about 50 kilometres south of Montreal.

Over the years, the road has become a well-travelled unofficial border crossing for asylum seekers hoping to enter Canada.

A police officer, a young girl and an adult with luggage stand under a wooden structure.

A semi-permanent RCMP post has been built on the Canadian side of Roxham Road. In the past, police have processed asylum seekers who arrive there. (Image credit: Sebastian St-Jean/AFP/Getty Images)

Asylum seekers are people who have left their country of origin and claim they fear persecution or being harmed if they were to stay. If their claim is processed and accepted, they may receive refugee status.

Many hopeful asylum seekers originally crossed into the U.S. with the aim of making it to Canada. They travel for weeks from the southern border to the northern border.

Others have lived in the U.S. for years but have heard it is easier to find work in Canada, that medical bills are more affordable or hope to reunite with loved ones.

They often arrive with few personal belongings. Many are families with children.

Despite its status as an unofficial crossing, Roxham Road has had a semi-permanent RCMP post set up by the federal government. At that post, police officers could begin processing asylum claims.

With this new agreement, those claims will no longer be processed.

New agreement closes border crossing loophole

Asylum seekers cannot enter Canada from the U.S. at official border points because of something called the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The agreement is between Canada and the U.S. and says that asylum seekers must make their claims in the first safe country they arrive in.

The U.S. is considered a safe country and the two countries share similar approaches to immigration.

Human rights organizations have challenged that idea in recent years, and are waiting for a decision from the Supreme Court of Canada on the subject.

The agreement had a loophole. It didn’t cover unofficial points of entry like Roxham Road.

A family of three,including a small child, walk with suitcases.

Families arrive at the border with luggage. Many only have a few personal items. (Image credit: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

It is against the law for an asylum claimant to cross the border anywhere other than at an official port of entry.

But in the old agreement, once someone was in Canada, they were legally allowed to apply for asylum, a step toward refugee status.

The new agreement has mostly closed that loophole.

Those who do cross into Canada and try to claim asylum within 14 days of arriving will be turned back to the U.S., unless they are eligible for an exception.

Exceptions include children travelling alone who are known as “unaccompanied minors” and people who have family that already legally live in Canada.

As part of the agreement, Canada will take in an additional 15,000 migrants over the next year on a humanitarian basis from the Western Hemisphere, which includes North and South America.

Quebec Premier calls new agreement ‘victory’

Roxham Road has seen tens of thousands of asylum seekers in just one year, compared to a few hundred in the rest of Canada.

The Quebec government said this puts a lot of pressure on it because it is then responsible for helping those people.

A sign reads: Stop. Do not cross. It is illegal to enter Canada from here. You will be arrested and may be returned to the United States. Refugee claimants must request protection in the first safe country they arrive in.

A new sign warning people not to cross the border was put up at the Roxham Road crossing on March 24 and revealed the next day. It replaced a sign that used to give details about claiming refugee status and warned against misinformation. (Image credit: Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

In February, Legault asked Trudeau to redirect all asylum seekers entering Quebec to other provinces “as soon as they arrive at the border.”

Legault said the updated agreement announced on Friday is a “very good victory” for Quebec.

Critics say this will make crossings more dangerous

Experts say Roxham Road was a relatively safe and easy-to-access crossing, which is why it became so popular. They worry its closure will lead people to take risks that could result in injury or death.

“The global result of this is just more danger, more deaths and more humanitarian catastrophes,” said Mireille Paquet, an assistant professor of political science at Concordia University in Montreal.

Other critics say they fear the new rules will give smugglers more business.

Wendy Ayotte is a founding member of Bridges Not Borders, a non-profit organization that helps support asylum seekers coming into Canada via Roxham Road.

She told CBC News she worries smugglers will take migrants across dangerous crossing routes to avoid border police.

“The government has gone down a very tired and dangerous route by trying to turn basically our border into a militarized zone where we are going to see people crossing in very unsafe conditions.”

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With files from Verity Stevenson, Kwabena Oduro, Darren Major, Paul Hunter/CBC

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