Asylum seekers: should we look beyond Roxham Road?

Patrick Masbourian, show host All one morningspoke with Mireille Paquet, professor of political science and holder of the Concordia University Research Chair on the New Immigration Policy.

Many of these migrants go first to New York or Plattsburgh, and a network takes them to Canada via Roxham Road. Why don’t they land right away in a Canadian city?

In particular because it is more difficult to enter Canada [qu’aux États-Unis].

In Canada, there is no land border with Mexico, which is the gateway to Latin America. It is also more difficult to arrive by boat in Canada; very few arrive by sea.

Furthermore, among those arriving via Roxham Road, some had been in the United States for years and, for a host of reasons, were unable to apply for refugee status. We tend to underestimate what it means to emigrate. You have to manage the trauma you’ve just experienced, make sure you have the documents, be able to tell your story to decision-makers; all this can take years.

Young women laden with luggage step out of a van down a tree-lined path, as a man watches.

In response to Quebec City’s request to close Roxham Road, Canada’s Minister of Public Security, Marco Mendicino, replied that a balance had to be found in this file between, on the one hand, “defending the rights of refugees and, on the other hand, “the need to protect everyone in Quebec”.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Anne-Louise Despatie

There is a lot of movement on the scale of the planet and a small part of these people in need, sometimes in an emergency, find themselves among us. Are they many?

We have the impression that Canada is facing large arrivals, numbers that are difficult to manage – this is a bit of the speech we heard from Quebec on Wednesday.

In fact, Canada receives a very small number of asylum seekers and immigrants who arrive irregularly, compared to the United States or Europe.

Globally, we are living with the result of a more global hospitality crisis. These people do not necessarily decide to come to Canada from the outset. Faced with increasingly restricted possibilities of obtaining protection, they end up trying their luck in Canada.

Does this mean that Quebec has nothing to complain about?

[Rires] It’s not up to me to decide what Quebec should say or not. But, it needs to be put into perspective. What Quebec puts forward are the issues raised by this new reality, and the way in which we respond to them.

Arrivals at Roxham Road are not going to stop. We are facing a global protection crisis and there will be new forms of human “insecurity”. For example, due to climate change. So we should expect more arrivals in Canada.

One could even say that the government of Quebec is preparing for it, or that the Quebec state is preparing for it. As proof, this agreement of nearly $50 million that the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal has just concluded with a private real estate firm to house asylum seekers from Roxham Road, and this, for a period of 10 years.

Yes, absolutely, Quebec knows it and I think the federal government also knows it very well.

But Quebec is trying to get a little more, to receive more resources for this temporary reception. And, like other provinces, Quebec continues to press Ottawa for faster processing times at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

The issue is not so much the reception capacity as the backlog in processing the applications of these asylum seekers. These people are in an administrative and legal vacuum for years, and it is complex for them.

A sign reads Rg Roxham.

Roxham Road is located in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle about sixty km from Montreal.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Anne-Louise Despatie

Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino says Canada is negotiating with the United States to modernize the Safe Third Country Agreement, signed between the two countries in 2004. Why was it negotiated? What problems did we want to solve?

We began to negotiate the agreement following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Canada was in a delicate position because the Americans had the theory that some of the terrorists had arrived in Canada and that they had potentially crossed the border. Pressure was on Canada to modernize its border and immigration system […] from a safer perspective.

In addition, both Canada and the United States were becoming aware that people, seeing their asylum application refused in one country, went to the neighboring country to reapply for refugee status. In this context, Ottawa and Washington drew inspiration from existing agreements within the European Union which were based on the concept of safe third countries.

What does such an agreement mean for migrants?

The countries that have signed the agreement are countries that are recognized not only as being safe, but also as having an equivalent refugee status determination system.

So according to legal theory – and the word theory is important here – if you are an asylum seeker, you have just as much chance of being treated equally and having your claim for protection recognized, in any which countries are safe. It is a theory, because we know that this is not the case in practice. But Canada and the United States were inspired by this principle to implement the agreement in order to prevent people from entering through the United States to make a request in Canada or the opposite.

A notice on Roxham Road with warnings, written in French, for asylum seekers.

The timelines for hearing an asylum claim before the Immigration and Refugee Board was 14 months in the spring of 2022.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Anne-Louise Despatie

In modernizing this agreement, should an asylum seeker be allowed to transfer their claim to Canada and therefore go through an official route, a border post? What should we do to welcome them as dignified as possible, to use the words of Quebec’s immigration minister, Jean Boulet?

We have to think about this concept of a safe third country. Currently, people who are in the United States are not allowed to submit a paper or electronic application to come to Canada, in order to have their file reviewed. If we allowed it […] this could have the effect of limiting irregular entries. This is a first element and it would be a big step forward.

The other element to be explored would be to allow applications at regular border posts, to avoid people arriving by irregular routes such as Roxham Road to lodge their application.

But I have very little hope that it will work, because those two elements are at the heart of the principle of safe third countries and that would be completely contrary to what the two governments are trying to do in this framework. I don’t expect that, unfortunately.

Certain language has been edited for clarity and accuracy.

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