Montreal

No easy fix for Roxham Road crossings, says refugee advocate

Two years after asylum seekers began pouring into Quebec at Roxham Road, north of Plattsburgh, N.Y., dozens still step across the border at that unauthorized crossing every day, despite the Liberal government’s attempt to stop them.

Liberal provision introduced this year not slowing influx of asylum seekers

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer standing in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec, advises migrants that they are about to illegally cross from Champlain, N.Y. in 2017. Since then, thousands of asylum seekers have continued to take the route, with dozens still crossing every day in 2019. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Two years after asylum seekers began pouring into Quebec at Roxham Road, north of Plattsburgh, N.Y., dozens still step across the border at that unauthorized crossing every day, despite the Liberal government's attempt to stop them.

The Liberals included a new provision in an omnibus bill last April, barring anyone from applying for asylum in Canada if they had already done so in one of the so-called Five Eyes countries which Canada shares intelligence with: Australia, New Zealand, the U.S. and the U.K.

At the time, Border Security Minister Bill Blair said the intent of the provision was to curb what he referred to as would-be asylum seekers "shopping around," making claims in multiple countries.

"If people are pursuing their claims in the United States, we wanted them to understand that they should stay there, because that's a safe place, and to pursue their claim in that place," Blair told CBC News recently.

Despite that change in the law, the latest figures from the government show that at least 9,965 people were intercepted by the RCMP crossing into Quebec by land this year — only ten fewer people than this time last year. At least 3,547 of them crossed after the provision came into effect in June.

On Sept. 29 alone, 65 asylum seekers were intercepted crossing into Quebec, according to the provincial Immigration Ministry.

Federal Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Bill Blair told CBC that "if people are pursuing their claims in the United States, we wanted them to understand that they should stay there." (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press)

The provision has also had unintended consequences. Canada has placed a moratorium on deportations to Haiti, leaving Haitian asylum seekers stranded here, unable to proceed with their asylum claims and therefore unable to obtain services and financial assistance from the federal government.

These are the kinds of problems that the Montreal-based Canadian Council for Refugees flagged when the Liberals introduced the change to the law last spring.

"It was rushed through and not given proper study because it was part of the budget bill," said Janet Dench, the council's executive director. "People are living the consequences for this poorly conceived piece of legislation."

Blair, who is seeking re-election in Scarborough Southwest, stands by the provision. In an interview with CBC News, he said the Liberal government wanted claimants to know that they "put themselves at a disadvantage" when they abandon a claim in the U.S. to make one in Canada.

Blair would not say if the provision is working as intended.

Human rights and immigration issues will be the topics of debate when the federal leaders go head-to-head on Oct. 7 and 10.

Here are how the other federal parties intend to address the asylum-seeker issue, if elected.

Conservative Party

The Conservatives did not respond to a CBC News request for comment on whether a Conservative-led government would change the Liberals' Five Eyes provision.

The party told CBC News that it would close what it sees as a loophole in the existing Safe Third Country agreement negotiated between Canada and the U.S., "in order to preserve a fair, orderly and compassionate immigration system."

Under that treaty, a refugee claimant must make a claim in the first "safe country" they arrive in. That means asylum seekers who come into Canada from the U.S. are turned away at an official Canadian port of entry.

However, anyone seeking asylum is still allowed to make a claim if they can land on Canadian soil. That's why so many asylum seekers have crossed into Canada illegally, at places such as Roxham Road, to make their claims once they are apprehended by the RCMP on the Canadian side.

Michelle Rempel, Conservative critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship has suggested making the entire length of the border an official port of entry. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel has suggested making the entire length of the border an official port of entry, meaning that the Safe Third Country rule would apply no matter where asylum seekers crossed. 

It's a solution Dench calls "absolutely absurd," since Canadian and U.S. citizens are often asked to present themselves to a port of entry — which in this case, could be anywhere along the border, under Rempel's proposal.

"I haven't heard anybody spell it out in a way that could possibly be viable," Dench said.

Dench said the Conservatives also need to consider that "you can't just unilaterally change an agreement" with another country.

The People's Party of Canada also suggested making the entire length of the border an official port of entry, as well as fencing off portions "where illegal border jumping is prevalent," such as Roxham Road.

New Democratic Party

The New Democratic Party says it would suspend the Safe Third Country agreement, if elected. If the treaty was suspended, asylum seekers could present themselves at any official border crossing to apply for refugee status.

In a statement to CBC News, the NDP said it would suspend the Liberal government's Five Eyes provision, as well.

"This is another example of the Liberals closing Canada's borders to vulnerable asylum seekers who are fleeing for their lives," the party said in its statement.

"Canada has international obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and we must continue to provide protection to those who need it. We also have to ensure any changes to our asylum system are not buried in an omnibus budget bill.''

The 'unofficial' border crossing at Roxham Road, seen here in August 2019, now has a permanent building staffed by RCMP officers, but a gravelly path is still all that separates the U.S. from Canada. This Pakistan family arrived on the overnight bus from New York. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

Green Party

Like the NDP, the Green Party said it would suspend the Safe Third Country agreement with the U.S. 

While Dench agrees that Canada should withdraw from the agreement "because the U.S. clearly is not a safe country for all refugees," she also said it may not have a tangible impact.

"At the moment, anybody who does actually want to cross into Canada can very easily find out that they can do so at Roxham Road," she said.

"So it's not even clear that suspending the agreement would make much difference in terms of the total number of people that would be coming to Canada and making a refugee claim."

As far as the Five Eyes provision is concerned, the Green Party said that right now, the U.S. alone is "violating rights."
 

About the Author

Laura Marchand is a web and radio journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow her on Twitter at @Marchand_L.

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