Roxham Road is just a small piece of a global migration crisis

It took an American — specifically, the American ambassador — to impose some perspective this week on the Canadian debate about Roxham Road. “Irregular migration is one of the major problems confronted by the Western hemisphere and Roxham Road is just a symptom of that problem,” David Cohen said.

Ambassador Cohen is right - and those looking for quick fixes are going to be disappointed

Asylum seekers from Congo walk through snow as they cross the border into Canada at Roxham Road in Champlain, N.Y., on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.
Asylum seekers from Congo walk through snow as they cross the border into Canada at Roxham Road on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press via AP)

It took an American to impose some perspective this week on the Canadian political debate about Roxham Road.

"Irregular migration is one of the major problems confronted by the Western hemisphere and Roxham Road is just a symptom of that problem," U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen told the CBC's Power & Politics

"Speaking for the United States and myself, it is a mistake to think that you can solve this problem by treating only symptoms. You have to treat the underlying causes of irregular migration to be able to address this significant and ongoing problem."

But what about the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), the pact between the United States and Canada that is often blamed for driving people to cross the land border at Roxham Road in Quebec?

"So I'm sort of intentionally not referencing the Safe Third Country Agreement because that's not the issue," Cohen said. "Whatever you do to the Safe Third Country Agreement is not going to do anything — or is going to do very little — about irregular migration."

David Cohen, the new U.S. Ambassador to Canada, is interviewed by a reporter in a boardroom in the U.S. Embassy building in Ottawa Feb. 22, 2022.
U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen says tinkering with the Safe Third Country Agreement won't solve the problem of irregular migrants at Roxham Road or anywhere else. (David Kawai/The Canadian Press)

Cohen might be forgiven for not panicking about the fact that 39,000 people crossed into Canada from the United States at Roxham Road last year. The number of people trying to enter the United States from Mexico is exponentially larger. If more people are finding a way to make it into Canada, Americans might consider that only fair.

But Cohen's basic point is hard to dispute. For all the talk of "closing Roxham Road" (as if it were as easy as hanging a "closed" sign at the border), the issue is much bigger than a single spot where southern Quebec meets the state of New York. And the Canadian political debate would benefit from taking a much wider view.

"Canada has been very lucky that we haven't had to deal with the global displacement crisis," Mireille Paquet, the Concordia University research chair on the politics of immigration, told CBC Radio's The Current this week.

"What we're experiencing in Canada is nothing compared to what is going on in other parts of the world."

What can be done about the STCA?

While Cohen might be right about that larger context, he might also be giving short shrift to the relevance of the STCA. But politicians calling for changes to the agreement should be made to explain exactly what they're calling for — and what those changes would mean.

People are turning up at Roxham Road because the STCA states that anyone arriving in Canada from the United States at an official land border crossing can be prevented from making an asylum claim and made to return to the States. Since Roxham Road is not an official crossing, it is effectively a "loophole" in the STCA.

When politicians talk about "closing" Roxham Road, they likely imagine that the United States could be convinced to extend the STCA's prohibition to the entire land border — or at least to Roxham Road.

That might reduce the absolute number of people seeking asylum. It might also lead people to find other ways in. And those alternative routes might be more dangerous.

Alternatively, the Canadian government could move to suspend the STCA, making it possible for asylum seekers to enter through official border crossings. That would eliminate the need for anyone to cross at Roxham Road. But making it easier to access an "official" option might lead to even more people coming to Canada and requesting asylum.

That might seem like a daunting prospect. But perhaps it would merely expose Canada to the sorts of challenges that are already confronting many other nations.

This isn't just Canada's problem

It's at least fair to say that Roxham Road isn't a particularly unique situation. More than 40,000 people crossed the English Channel by boat last year to reach the U.K. An estimated 330,000 migrants made irregular crossings of the European Union's external borders in 2022. That figure does not include Ukrainians displaced by Russia's invasion.

Poland is now home to two million Ukrainian refugees, while Germany is hosting nearly a million. Turkey, meanwhile, is still home to four million Syrian refugees.

The UN Refugee Agency counted 103 million forcibly displaced people in the world last year, a figure that has doubled over the last decade. They include millions of Venezuelans who have largely settled in other South American countries (as recently reported in detail by the Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders). And the recent waves of migration may only be a prelude — climate change is expected to drive many more people to flee their homes and countries.

A family of asylum seekers from Colombia crosses the border at Roxham Road into Canada on Thursday, February 9, 2023  in Champlain, New York.
A family of asylum seekers from Colombia crosses the border at Roxham Road into Canada on Thursday, February 9, 2023 in Champlain, New York. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Even if Roxham Road can be "closed," there's no reason that Canada, a wealthy and capable nation, shouldn't be expected to shoulder its fair share of the responsibility for dealing with a global problem.

"At an international level, within the global compact [on refugees], there is explicit language about 'responsibility sharing' and 'burden sharing' and I would say that Canada is a very small player," said Christina Clark-Kazak, a professor at the University of Ottawa and a former president of the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration.

'This is not a blip'

Last June, Canada was one of 21 countries in the Western hemisphere to sign the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, an initiative spearheaded by President Joe Biden.

The signatories pledged to work together to "create the conditions for safe, orderly, humane and regular migration" and "promote the political, economic, security, social and environmental conditions" that would reduce the need to migrate in the first place. At the time, the Trudeau government committed $27 million toward the effort.

Truly global problems require international cooperation. But the same principle applies to Canada's domestic response. Paquet and Robert Schertzer, a professor at the University of Toronto, published a paper in 2020 that described irregular border crossings as a "complex intergovernmental problem."

Proactive collaboration and engagement are required at all levels to address the problem. The federal government needs to expedite the processing of claimants and provide predictable funding to provinces, and provinces need to share in the work of hosting migrants.

A dirt path with a marker.
A boundary monument marks the border between Canada and the United States at Roxham Road. The road is a well-travelled unofficial border crossing for asylum seekers hoping to cross into Canada. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Asylum seekers are not merely a burden to be borne; immigration can have great economic and social benefits. But migration that seems uncontrolled or poorly managed risks eroding public support — stoking fears, allowing asylum seekers to become politicized. And actually dealing with the fact that people want to come to Canada might make more sense than trying to make it harder for them to get here.

"I think that we should just accept that this is part of our new reality. This is not a blip," Paquet said of Roxham Road. "This is the result of global forces that go well beyond the power of a single government."

Legal or physical barriers don't eliminate the desire or the need to leave inhospitable places in search of something better. And while Canada's geography may have allowed it to maintain relatively strict control over immigration for most of its history, it can't expect to be immune forever.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.