The United States and Canada reportedly reached an agreement allowing border officials to return asylum seekers heading north across their shared border without considering their requests for refuge, sparking outrage from immigrant groups.
US and Canadian media reported the preliminary agreement on Thursday as US President Joe Biden visits Canada’s capital Ottawa for his first official visit to the country since taking office in early 2021.
Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to confirm the agreement on Friday.
In a press release, Canada’s Migrant Rights Network condemned the move, calling it “principled and dangerous” and stating that it would “force migrants to take even more dangerous routes” if they seek refuge.
Immigration rights groups have accused both leaders of failing to meet their obligations to asylum seekers as the US and Canada commit to more restrictive measures to return refugees amid attacks from conservative politicians.
The reported agreement expands on a policy known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). The agreement states that the US and Canada are both safe countries for refugees and that refugees should seek asylum in the country where they first arrive.
Under that policy, Canada can deny asylum seekers at official ports of entry along the US border without considering their petitions.
However, people can still apply for asylum if they reach Canadian soil. About 39,000 people entered Canada last year through unofficial intersections such as Roxham Road, a dirt road between the US state of New York and the Canadian province of Quebec that has become a symbol of debate over the country’s immigration policy.
Conservative politicians such as Pierre Poilièvre have harassed Trudeau on the issue, characterizing the prime minister as unwilling to crack down on illegal migration and urging the government to close off Roxham Road.
In an op-ed in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper last month, Quebec Prime Minister Francois Legault said the province’s capacity to receive the newly arrived asylum seekers was “largely exceeded” and called on the Trudeau administration to rewrite the STCA .
Responding to questions from Al Jazeera, Trudeau’s office said it could not confirm Thursday’s media reports and did not respond to questions about criticism from refugee rights groups.
The agreement, drawn first in 2002 and in effect since 2004, has been controversial since its inception, with rights groups in Canada petitioning for the policy to be relaxed or abolished altogether. Instead, the Trudeau administration has tried to defend its use — and now expand it.
In the meantime, the government has moved asylum seekers from Quebec to other provinces to better distribute the problems.
RELEASE: We condemn the “principled and dangerous” Roxham Road closure, call on PM @JustinTrudeau to secure access, equal rights and #StatusForAll Migrants
— Migrant Rights Network #StatusforAll (@MigrantRightsCA) March 23, 2023
Experts say such actions can only provide short-term relief and Canada should provide more opportunities for refugees to seek asylum in a safe and orderly manner, rather than cracking down on illegal border crossings.
“It is completely impractical to try to close off the border. If you close off Roxham Road, another just pops up somewhere else,” refugee lawyer Maureen Silcoff told Al Jazeera on a recent phone call.
“It’s the STCA itself pushing people to places like Roxham Road because they can’t claim asylum at official ports of entry.”
When the options for seeking asylum are limited, people are rarely deterred, she added. Instead, she noted, they are looking for more remote locations where they can enter the country, even if it means accepting greater risks.
“If they follow a path of greater restrictions,” Silcoff said, “people will die.”
The STCA has also faced ongoing legal challenges and has been suspended by courts twice. Twice appeals courts have upheld the policy, which is now being weighed by Canada’s Supreme Court, where advocacy groups hope it will be declared unconstitutional.
Such groups have also questioned the assumption that the US is a safe destination for refugees amid reports of poor conditions in US immigrant detention centers.
“Canada has an international reputation as a country with a history of helping refugees,” said Jamie Liew, an immigration expert at the University of Ottawa.
“We have a system for determining refugee claims that is considered the gold standard. Why don’t you make it work? If we opened our official gateways, people would be able to cross smoothly and with dignity.”
Experts also note that the tide of people fleeing desperate conditions is unlikely to abate any time soon, especially as climate change leads to displacement, especially in poorer countries.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 100 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2022.
The year before, nearly 5 million people left their country to seek asylum.
“What Canada stands for is a drop in the ocean compared to other countries,” said Liew. “We have a duty to allow people to apply for refugees.”