Canada-U.S. border deal sparks fear asylum seekers will be put in harm’s way


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WINNIPEG — A new rule to disallow asylum seekers from making a refugee claim if they enter Canada at an irregular crossing — such as the well-worn Roxham Road in Quebec or a desolate stretch along the Manitoba-North Dakota border — is raising concerns more migrants could lose life and limb.

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WINNIPEG — A new rule to disallow asylum seekers from making a refugee claim if they enter Canada at an irregular crossing — such as the well-worn Roxham Road in Quebec or a desolate stretch along the Manitoba-North Dakota border — is raising concerns more migrants could lose life and limb.

“That’s my biggest fear,” said Winnipeg immigration lawyer Alistair Clarke, “that if they… are trying to close irregular entry points, that it’s just going to lead to more potential harm and potential death.”

He said it could provoke a surge in undocumented arrivals.

A border marker is shown just outside of Emerson, Man. (The Canadian Press)

On Friday, Canada and the United States agreed to have asylum seekers rejected at irregular border crossings along the 8,900-kilometre border. It represents an extension of a treaty known as the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The move, made during a visit to Canada of U.S. President Joe Biden, was prompted by Quebec’s pressure on the federal government. The province has been overwhelmed by refugee claimants entering at Roxham Road — the shortest, safest migration route from New York state. Last year, RCMP intercepted 39,000 refugee claimants at the site. Friday’s agreement means Roxham Road will be closed as of Saturday morning.

Clarke said the decision will result in desperate migrants crossing at other places that can be perilous, such as the Manitoba-U.S. border near Emerson.

A record numbers of asylum seekers arrived from the U.S. after Donald Trump’s presidential victory in November 2016. In 2017, Manitoba RCMP intercepted 1,018 asylum seekers. In 2022, there were close to 100.

Emerson-Franklin Reeve Dave Carlson hopes the change to the Safe Third Country Agreement and asylum seekers being turned away at Roxham Road doesn’t result in a surge of people crossing the border at Manitoba where conditions can be treacherous.

“As you know, with people crossing it, it can be very dangerous, especially at certain times of year, whether it’s extreme cold or even flooding conditions,” Carlson said Friday. “We don’t want to see anyone hurt or any more tragedies there.”

On Jan. 19, 2022, the bodies of Jagdishkumar Patel, 39; his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37; their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi; and their three-year-old son, Dharmik, were found in a snowy field east of Emerson. The family from India froze to death trying immigrate to the U.S.

In December, 2016, Ghanaian asylum seekers Razak Iyal and Seidu Mohammed lost their fingers to frostbite after crossing into Canada near Emerson and walking for hours in deep snow. Their refugee claims were approved and the two men became Canadian citizens earlier this month.

On May 26, 2017, the body of 57-year-old grandmother Mavis Otuteye who was trying to cross into Canada to visit her newborn grandchild in Toronto, was discovered in a ditch less than a kilometre just south of the border near Noyes, Minn. The Ghanaian woman was living in the U.S. on an expired visa when she attempted to cross the border not far from Highway 75 and died of hypothermia.

“It’s very unfortunate that that happened,” Manitoba Immigration Minister Jon Reyes said about the ill-fated irregular border crossings. “That is an issue,” he said Friday when asked about the impact of changing the Safe Third Country Agreement to allow border crossers to be turned away.

The 2004 Canada-U.S. agreement requires asylum seekers to claim refugee status in the first safe country in which they arrive. Because the U.S. and Canada are both considered “safe,” those trying to enter either country at a port of entry are turned away. Exceptions were made for people who entered Canada between ports of entry so they could file a refugee claim.

Advocates say Friday’s decision won’t stop desperate people from entering Canada, especially those who face deportation from the U.S. back to the country they fled, after their refugee claims were dismissed without a fair hearing in an American court.

Clarke and others question how Canada plans to “close” the world’s longest land border to irregular crossings.

“We don’t know how this is going to work,” Clarke said. “I don’t think there’s any plan on building a wall. I don’t think there’s any plan on militarizing the border. I don’t think there’s any plan on having RCMP officers or (border) officers staff the entire border, and thousands and thousands of kilometres,” he said.

“I don’t know how they’re going to implement this agreement. It’s extremely problematic. I don’t think that there is an easy solution,” said Clarke.

Reyes said Manitoba will have further discussions with the federal government about the amended Canada-U.S. agreement and its implications.

“In terms of immigration and newcomers and refugees, there’s always going to be that humanitarian aspect of welcoming newcomers to our province,” Reyes said. “We’ll be in the right position to do that when we’re informed.”

Preventing those who’ve entered Canada from applying for refugee protection could result in a situation like the U.S. Unknown, unregistered and undocumented migrants would work illegally and be at risk of being exploited, Clarke said.

“There are many, many thousands of workers who are in that grey economy in the United States,” the lawyer said. “This agreement could open Canada up to that type of system… without a social insurance number, without proper paycheques,” he said.

Human rights lawyer David Matas said the entire agreement could get shot down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

“The Federal Court held the agreement unconstitutional because of how badly refugees are treated in the U.S.,” said Matas, who agrees with the decision.

While the case was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal, it was presented to the Supreme Court in October. Canada’s highest court has yet to issue its ruling.

“I consider it ill-advised to expand the agreement when there is a pending Supreme Court of Canada judgment which could invalidate both the original agreement and, in consequence, its expansion,” Matas said.

Clarke said the agreement should be suspended and Canada should allow refugee claimants to make their claims at regular ports of entry.

» Winnipeg Free Press

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