She crossed 12 countries 'for nothing.' Asylum seekers rejected by Canada end up stranded in U.S.
Naomie says she travelled through 'horrible, horrible places' to meet her uncle in Canada. It didn't work out
Sitting at the bus and gas station in Plattsburgh, N.Y., 24-year-old Naomie shakes her head. She spent more than a year on what she calls le chemin de l'enfer, the road to hell, to escape persecution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and meet up with a long-lost uncle in Montreal, only to end up exhausted and without any money back at this convenience store in upstate New York.
Naomie fled her country to neighbouring Angola in 2021, after she was raped by her stepfather, a soldier. In Angola, with next to no resources for asylum seekers, she met a man in a market who said he was willing to help her and rented a little place for her to stay. Naomie says she didn't know he was married and that when his wife found out, she called on a group of bandits who stormed her home in the night. One of the men also raped her.
CBC has agreed not to use Naomie's last name because she fears repercussions to her safety and her immigration file for speaking to media.
"I've been through so many horrible, horrible places," she said, sitting at a table next to the Dunkin' Donuts counter inside the store. "I went through all that, all that, all that for nothing."
More than a month after changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between Canada and the U.S. effectively closed the Canadian border to asylum seekers, refugee hopefuls like Naomie continue to try to claim asylum in Canada at the border in New York.
Some believe they will qualify for one of the exceptions to the agreement; others still don't know about the changes. Most, including Naomie, have been turned away.
Naomie's attempt to seek asylum in Canada at the official border crossing in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle south of Montreal was rejected in late April.
Roxham Road, the unofficial crossing point where 40,000 asylum seekers entered on foot in the last year, effectively closed following changes to the STCA between the United States and Canada, announced March 24. Taxi drivers no longer shuttle people from the Plattsburgh bus station to Roxham as a result, instead driving them to the nearby official point of entry.
At the convenience store, Naomie's expression had been stoic until then, resigned and almost in disbelief that she was, once again, thrown into the unknown, no solid ground to land on. But as she described the events in the DRC and Angola, she wiped away a tear with her sleeve.
Naomie had learned of the closure of Roxham Road, but she believed she qualified for one of the three exemptions to the agreement. The exceptions include having a family member with legal status in Canada, being an unaccompanied minor and having a work permit or other official document allowing a person to be in Canada.
Volunteers from Bridges Not Borders, an organization advocating for asylum seekers, connected Naomie with a lawyer who is helping her apply for a request for reconsideration in her case.
"It's important to emphasize that the recourses available to people who've been turned back at the border under the Safe Third Country Agreement are extremely limited," said Kate Forrest, the immigration and refugee lawyer who has been helping Naomie.
"It's difficult to get these decisions overturned. And yet the the stakes are very high, obviously, for the people affected."
Even as word of the closure appears to have had an impact on the number of asylum seekers landing in Plattsburgh, it hasn't stopped nearly 300 people like Naomie from trying their luck anyway.
Surge in numbers of people leaving South America
According to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), 276 asylum hopefuls have attempted to make claims across the country since March 25, an overwhelming majority of them in Quebec. Seventy-nine of them were deemed eligible and let into Canada, one person withdrew their application and "voluntarily went back to the U.S.," and the rest were detained and sent back.
After what happened in Angola, Naomie managed to get a flight to Brazil thanks to lax visa restrictions. From there, she met a family that was preparing to make the journey to North America. With no other options, she decided to follow them. The pathway north through about a dozen countries in South and Central America is one that a steadily growing number of asylum seekers have been taking in the past five years.
According to a Pulitzer-prize winning article in The California Sunday Magazine, 24,000 migrants traversed the Darién Gap in 2019, a treacherous jungle people must walk through in order to get from Colombia to Panama on their way north. By 2022, that number had skyrocketed to 250,000.
Earlier this month, two United Nations groups said 80,000 migrants have already walked through the forest this year and that they expect as many as 400,000 to make the journey by the end of 2023.
Naomie spent four days in the jungle. She says she almost drowned several times and was robbed of all her possessions by bandits. Toward the end, she couldn't walk straight because of how hungry she was.
She has a saying for all these places she travelled through: Dieu pour tous, chacun pour soi. In French, it means God can protect everyone, but it's everyone for him or herself.
"No one is going to help you. If you are sick, you're stuck. If you have a partner, they can help you. But I am alone. Who is going to help me?" she asked.
In Plattsburgh, there's little in the way of help for asylum seekers and the people who have been helping say they cannot meet the need, with asylum seekers ending up stranded either at the gas station or on the side of the road throughout the county encompassing Plattsburgh.
In mid-April, local organization Plattsburgh Cares along with the mayor of Champlain, N.Y. (the town Roxham Road is in on the U.S. side) asked the Clinton County Legislature to do more to support stranded asylum seekers in the area.
"I understand this is a federal problem, but I also understand that this is a crisis of humanity and it is in our backyard," the mayor, Janet McFetridge, told the legislature, according to the Plattsburgh Press-Republican newspaper.
McFetridge said she met families who'd been knocking on locals' doors looking for help.
Kathy Sajor, the president of Plattsburgh Cares, told the legislature: "They are stranded, desperate, confused, depleted and often traumatized by their circumstances."
A motel owner in the town of Plattsburgh said the organization had paid for the stay of several asylum seekers there. In the corner of her lobby, there were paper bags filled with snacks and supplies put together by the group.
"Really, every day, people are coming," said Nidhi Patel, the owner of the Rip Van Winkle Motel, near the shore of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh. "A lot of people are having troubles. They don't have money."
Patel, 32, said at least one family of asylum seekers have shown up every day at her motel in the past two weeks.
When some have arrived without the help of Plattsburgh Cares, she has let them stay for free. The families usually arrive in the evenings, when they've exhausted all other options to try to get out of Plattsburgh, Patel said.
She, too, would like to see various levels of government do more in response to the fallout from the changes at Roxham Road, noting those changes have also caused a slowdown in business as people used to stay at the motel on their way there.
CBC reached out to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada several times, but received only an automatic reply saying the federal agency has been impacted by the public servants' strike.
A friend Naomie made on her way to Plattsburgh in Portland, Maine, happened to be nearby when she was at the gas station and agreed to come pick her up. She has been staying with him since then.
After Naomie left, another Congolese woman showed up at the gas station with her eight-year-old son. His feet dangling from his chair, he played with imaginary cars as she cried quietly. The mother and son had fled their country in the night only weeks earlier, leaving everything behind. She said she has a cousin in Canada, but their claims were rejected anyway.
They caught the bus to New York City about an hour later.
Power Malu, the executive director of Artists-Athletes-Activists, one of two grassroots organizations helping asylum seekers inside the Port Authority bus terminal in New York City, says his group has had to help several people who were turned away by Canadian border officials.
"Including a pregnant mother and her child that were turned away just a few days ago and are here in NYC," Malu said by text message.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, a senior policy adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, says it may still be taking time for news of the border changes to make its way through to those already heading north.
"It's still a relatively recent development," Brown said in a phone interview. The hope, for both Canada and the U.S., is that it will discourage asylum seekers from seeking out irregular migration paths, such as Roxham, or more remote areas across the border, she said.
Critics have countered it will only do the opposite, but Brown says the goal is to cause a major reduction in those numbers.
She says the policy — as well as similar U.S. policies effectively halting asylum seekers in other countries, such as Mexico at the southern U.S. border — have come about in response to overwhelmed immigration systems.
"Bureaucratically, expanding governmental systems like that, it takes a while," Brown said.
Stéphanie Valois, a Montreal-based immigration lawyer and the head of Quebec's immigration lawyers' association, believes improving Canada's immigration system is a matter of political will.
The rising numbers of asylum seekers crossing at Roxham was referred to as a burden for Quebec. Valois's group and others have said abolishing the STCA and allowing asylum seekers to claim asylum at official points would mean a natural distribution of their numbers across the east-west land border.
Melissa Claisse, communications co-ordinator for the Welcome Collective in Montreal, an organization that helps asylum seekers settle in the city, says clients are disheartened by the new agreement and several with family members who had been on their way to Canada are struggling to determine whether their kin are eligible for the exemptions.
"It's very difficult for us to give good advice to our clients about what they can tell their family members because the policy was announced without really any details or kind of guidelines about how it'll be put into effect at the border," Claisse said.
"There's no difference between them and the people who came a little bit later and got turned away. And we see how much they have suffered and have benefited from from finding safety in Canada."
With files from Cassandra Yanez-Leyton