The surge in asylum seekers entering Canada from the US is once again becoming the focus
By Anna Mehler Paperny
TORONTO (Reuters) – Thousands of asylum seekers entering Canada irregularly via a dirt road between New York state and the province of Quebec are once again becoming a political flashpoint in Canada as the Quebec government says it can’t handle the rising numbers anymore can handle.
The movement of asylum seekers from the United States to Canada has increased since Canada lifted COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in late 2021, a trend reflecting global displacement. More than 39,000 refugees entered Canada last year through unofficial border crossings, the vast majority through Roxham Road, which connects Quebec and New York state. The number of crossings to Quebec more than doubled last year compared to 2017, when Roxham Road made international headlines.
Nearly 5,000 more asylum-seekers entered Canada between official border crossings last month — the highest January since the Canadian government began dissecting that data in 2017. This increase in 2017 was spurred in part by then-US President Donald Trump’s crackdown on migrants.
Canada is a signatory to the International Refugee Convention, which requires Canada to decide on most refugee applications, with limited exceptions. The Convention has limitations on the definition of refugee; Canadian law provides exceptions to who can access refugee protection in Canada.
The influx has prompted Quebec Premier Francois Legault to urge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government to relocate asylum seekers to other provinces and speed up the issuance of work permits, as the province’s “capacity to deal with asylum seekers is now well exceeded.” “.
Quebec prides itself on its “tradition of hosting refugees,” but its services are strained, Legault wrote in an op-ed in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper this week. He has expressed concern in the past that non-Francophone newcomers would hamper government efforts to promote the French language.
The federal government says it has transferred more than 5,800 Quebec asylum seekers since June. A spokesman for Canada’s Minister for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship said in a statement Tuesday the government is working with communities outside of Quebec on a “pan-Canadian approach” that would include relocating refugee applicants elsewhere.
Legault also called on Canada to urge the United States to rewrite the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) — something Canada says it is doing.
Under the STCA, anyone attempting to cross the Canada-US border at a formal border crossing in either direction will be turned around and directed to seek asylum in the first of the two countries where they arrived, with few exceptions.
Canada wants to rewrite this agreement so it can turn back asylum seekers who are caught anywhere along the border – not just at formal crossings.
The agreement is why people who want to claim refugee status in Canada enter the country via Quebec’s Roxham Road: otherwise, they could enter Canada at any US border crossing.
Canadian federal courts have twice struck down the agreement and twice appellate courts have upheld it. The latest case came before Canada’s Supreme Court last fall and a verdict is expected in the coming months.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Trudeau said his government had tried for years to “close” Roxham Road by rewriting the STCA.
“The challenge isn’t to say, ‘Oh, we should close it.’ The challenge is how to close it, how to make sure people don’t choose to enter Canada irregularly, to protect the integrity of our immigration system, but also stay true to our values.”
Abdulla Daoud, executive director of the Montreal refugee center, said bureaucratic delays are the real problem with the influx of asylum seekers.
“If we move them to another province, we’re not really solving anything,” Daoud said, adding that community organizations would still be overwhelmed because asylum seekers don’t have the necessary documents to work and use some government services too take.
Daoud said his organization is seeing many new migrants from Latin America, many of whom say they are fleeing persecution.
Refugee advocates argue that repealing the deal entirely, or introducing additional exemptions, would allow asylum-seekers to enter Canada at regular border crossings elsewhere in the country, not just Roxham Road, thereby easing pressure on Quebec.
On Tuesday, Conservative opposition leader Pierre Poilievre urged Trudeau to “close” Roxham Road. Poilievre pointed to a COVID-19 policy under which Canada rejected asylum seekers crossing back and forth between ports of entry, a policy that was challenged in court when it was lifted.
But “sealing off the border is not practical,” said refugee lawyer Maureen Silcoff.
“No one is interested in people arriving undetected and taking dangerous routes to cross.”
(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Denny Thomas and Josie Kao)