About a dozen asylum seekers hoping to start a new life in Canada saw their plans hit a snag on Saturday afternoon when they learned an unofficial crossing between the Canadian and U.S. border no longer offered the safe passage they’d come to expect.
An expansion to the 2004 treaty known as the Safe Third Country Agreement took effect while they were en route to the Roxham Road crossing from New York to Quebec, making it illegal to claim refugee status at the entry point where thousands had previously succeeded.
The new rules kicked in Saturday morning, stunning newcomers as they disembarked from a bus that brought them to Plattsburgh, N.Y. only to learn of the change from assembled media.
“Wow,” said a man from Colombia with a look of disbelief on his face. He did not give his name but said in Spanish that he was travelling with his wife and young son. A few minutes later, he approached The Canadian Press and asked if Roxham Road was truly closed.
Up until Friday, lines of taxis would be stationed at the bus stop waiting to carry asylum seekers to Roxham Road. On Saturday afternoon, only one van showed up.
The driver, who declined to provide his name, ferried two Colombian families to the crossing, only shrugging when asked if he knew his passengers risked possible arrest once they reached their destination.
A sign emblazoned with such warnings for illegal asylum seekers now looms over the Roxham Road crossing. But experts who work directly with those seeking refugee status in Canada say they doubt such cautions, and the new migration rules they’re intended to uphold, will do much to deter cross-border traffic.
Restricting access to the border and preventing migrants from accessing a safe pathway into the country will only incentivize bad-faith actors, said Abdulla Daoud, executive director of Montreal-based The Refugee Centre.
“This type of decision-making … in the past, has led to the creation of many human traffickers and smuggling rings,” Daoud said in an interview on Friday. “Canada never really had to deal with that too much. But now I think we’re going to see the numbers increase because these individuals are not going to go away.”
The new rules were announced on Friday during U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Ottawa.
It was described in U.S. documents as a “supplement” to the Safe Third Country Agreement. That treaty prevents people in either Canada or the United States from crossing the border and making a refugee claim in either country — but until now, it only covered official points of entry.
The agreement now applies along the nearly 9,000-kilometre border, including at unofficial crossings like Roxham Road.
All was quiet there on Saturday, with mostly members of the media on-hand awaiting the arrival of new would-be asylum seekers.
The sign installed on Friday and unveiled at midnight when the new agreement took effect now warns newcomers that it is illegal to enter Canada through Roxham Road.
“You will be arrested and may be returned to the United States. Refugee claimants must request protection in the first safe country they arrive in,” it reads.
The executive director of Home of the World, a shelter for asylum seekers and migrants in Montreal, said it is possible that would-be refugees determined to cross into Canada may end up dying by taking dangerous routes into the country.
“It’s very possible that people will try to cross over using more hidden places and get stuck in the woods for two weeks and end up losing their lives,” Eva Gracia-Turgeon said in an interview. “We are talking about not only individuals but also families and pregnant women and young children who are going to cross. So potentially, there will be more drama at the border.”
One American official also voiced concern about the impact the new deal would have on residents on the U.S. side of the border.
“This becomes a local issue when you still have an influx of people coming here,” said Billy Jones, an assembly member in the New York state legislature. “If they are denied entry, where are they going? What are they doing? As well as the humanitarian part of it. We don’t want people stranded along the border, oftentimes not prepared for the conditions that we have out here.”
The expanded Safe Third Party Agreement will also see Canada commit to welcoming 15,000 immigrants from across the Western Hemisphere this year, more than three times the number previously intended.
But Jenny Kwan, the New Democrat critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said widening official pathways to refugee status will do little to ease pressures at the border.
“In 2022, nearly 40,000 migrants entered the country through Roxham Road,” she said in a statement in which she roundly condemned the expanded agreement. “This ineffective measure will not protect Canadians — it will only further endanger and marginalize asylum seekers fleeing persecution and trying to come to safety in Canada.”
Both Kwan and the Canadian Council for Refugees also criticized the Liberal government for proceeding with the expansion while the country’s top court is still grappling with questions about the constitutionality of the original deal.
“The Supreme Court (of Canada) is expected to rule soon on whether the existing Safe Third Country Agreement violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — it is shocking that the Canadian government is extending the Agreement while the question of the constitutionality of the Agreement is before the Court,” the council said in a statement.
At least one asylum seeker indicated he planned to press on with efforts to come to Canada.
A man identifying himself only as Herman said he arrived in New York on Friday after fleeing Congo and hopes to join relatives currently living in Ottawa.
His wife and four kids remain in his home country, but Herman — speaking in French — said there’s no choice but to forge ahead with the search for a new home.
“I miss them, but the conditions over there are dire,” he said.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Marisela Amador, The Canadian Press