Montreal

Influx of asylum seekers reignites calls for changes to U.S. border pact

There are renewed calls for the federal government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact between Canada and the U.S. which governs where people can make asylum claims on either side of the border.

Lawyer wants feds to suspend Safe Third Country Agreement, which has led to spike in crossings at Roxham Road

Quebec has seen the vast majority of asylum claims in Canada over the past two years, and illegal crossings have increased dramatically in recent months. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

As authorities contend with another influx of asylum seekers, a prominent Quebec lawyer is renewing calls for the federal government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact between Canada and the U.S. which governs where people can make asylum claims on either side of the border.

"The federal government needs to intervene. I think it's clear now that they need to," Stéphane Handfield, an immigration and refugee lawyer in Montreal, said in an interview.

Handfield penned an open letter on the weekend calling for the agreement to be put on hold for three months while officials figure out next steps.

Doing so would ease the pressure on Quebec, which has seen the vast majority of asylum claims in the past two years, he said.

It would also allow asylum seekers to present themselves at an official post anywhere across the Canadian border, rather than at Roxham Road, which has become the most common point of crossing due to its ease of access.

New arrivals mostly from Nigeria

The Safe Third Country Agreement, which has been in effect since 2004, forces asylum seekers to make refugee claims in the first safe country in which they find themselves.

Refugees who first arrive in the U.S., therefore, can't then apply for asylum in Canada at official border crossings.

That encourages illegal crossings from the U.S., immigration lawyers say. Such crossings have increased dramatically in recent months, especially in Manitoba and Quebec.

More than 200 law professors signed an open letter last year calling on Ottawa to withdraw from the pact.

Stéphane Handfield, a well-known immigration and refugee lawyer in Montreal, wants the federal government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement. (Radio-Canada)

Last summer, most of the asylum seekers were from Haiti and were crossing into Canada out of fear President Donald Trump would end a temporary residency program.

This year, the bulk of new arrivals are from Nigeria. Often, they only spend a few hours in the U.S. before making their way to the Canadian border, Handfield said. 

Handfield said he's heard tales of Nigerians being offered a U.S. tourist visa, an airline ticket, a bus ticket and details on how to get to Roxham Road for $10,000.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, who has previously defended the Safe Third Country Agreement, recently hinted it could be time to change the pact.

"The agreement is ripe to be modernized, but of course it would take an agreement with the United States to do that, and of course it's not something we can unilaterally do," he told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

He also said he has dispatched senior officials to work with the U.S. diplomatic mission in Nigeria.

"The majority of Nigerians coming through Quebec actually possess valid U.S. visas, then come to Canada," he said.

"We've been working with U.S. to tighten the rate of acceptance. It's down 10 per cent."

Agreement between Quebec, feds in works

Hussen's department has promised to come up with a plan to relieve Quebec's strained resources, but the details never materialized last week.

The plan is expected to contain measures aimed at encouraging asylum seekers to settle outside of Montreal if they want to stay in Quebec, as well as in other provinces, including neighbouring Ontario.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says the government has dispatched senior officials to work with the American diplomatic mission in Nigeria after Canada sees a growing number of Nigerian asylum seekers using American travel visas on their journey to this country. 11:05

On Monday, Beatrice Fenelon, a spokesperson for Immigration Canada, said the government is still "working closely with Quebec and we are considering a recent request from their provincial government for additional support."

"We are aware that a disproportionate number of irregular border crossers are going to Quebec, which puts a disproportionate amount of pressure on Quebec versus other provinces," she said in an email.

Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees said the influx of asylum seekers should be seen as an opportunity for Quebec, where a strong economy has led to a labour shortage in some sectors.

"There is an opportunity here because Quebec is looking for workers," she said.

"We only need to shift the way we look at it to say, look, here are people coming to contribute to this society."