The closure of a rural highway in southern Quebec used by thousands of asylum seekers to enter Canada from the United States has not prevented the arrival of potential refugees, federal data shows.
The number of people seeking asylum in Canada dropped sharply after the end of March, when the government negotiated an agreement with the United States to turn away asylum seekers at unofficial border crossings such as Roxham Road in Quebec. However, the numbers have risen again in recent months, buoyed by an increase in arrivals at airports in Ontario and Quebec.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US President Joe Biden announced in March that they were closing a longstanding loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, under which asylum seekers must apply for refugee status in the first of the two countries they enter. The agreement now applies along the entire shared border, rather than just at official ports of entry, a situation that has led thousands of people to cross at Roxham Road each month to ensure their claims are heard in Canada. .
In June, the RCMP across the country intercepted just 36 people between official border points, compared to 4,994 in January. However, the Canada Border Services Agency processed 4,350 claims in June at airports, almost all in Quebec and Ontario, compared with 1,370 in January and 1,360 in June 2022.
While the issue may have faded from the political spotlight since Roxham Road was closed, the head of a group helping refugees in Montreal says his organization is as busy as ever.
“The numbers we’re experiencing now are actually higher than what we had in March, January and February,” said Abdulla Daoud, executive director of the Montreal-based The Refugee Centre. He said his organization sees between 100 and 150 people a day seeking legal services and other help with their claims.
Daoud believes that the increase in the number of people in airports is due to the “current global state of affairs” which has resulted in what the United Nations Refugee Agency has called the highest number of registered displaced people: some 110 millions.
“This is our global reality and this is how the world works today,” he said. “We have to start investing in infrastructure to deal with the numbers we’re getting, because there’s no real deterrent that can be put in place to keep people from coming in.”
Stéphanie Valois, co-chair of the Quebec immigration lawyers association, sees another reason for the surge in airport arrivals. She said the federal government in recent months has “massively” increased its processing of visitor visas to address a backlog, resulting in more arrivals and therefore more claims.
In his opinion, the increase in arrivals at the airport is not related to the closure of Roxham Road because “asylum seekers arriving at the airport come from different places”. She said people entering Roxham Road typically came from countries where it was difficult to obtain a visitor’s visa, such as Haiti, Turkey, Colombia and Venezuela. Those arriving at the airports arrive on visas, often from African countries or India, she said.
However, he agrees with Daoud that, in the long run, the number of asylum seekers will increase, as more people discover ways to reach Canada in their search for safety.
Canadian Press contacted Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada for information on the changes to visa processing, but did not receive a response at press time.
Both Daoud and Valois say they are concerned about people who can no longer use Roxham Road to get to Canada. Valois noted that most asylum claims in Canada are ultimately accepted, showing that “these are not people who come here looking for a better life,” she said. “They come to escape persecution.”
Both also worry that those who still choose to make the journey will find themselves in unsafe situations and increasingly turn to smugglers to cross the border.
Daoud says his organization has already been seeing more and more people sneaking across the border and hiding from authorities for two weeks before filing a claim. While the Safe Third Country Agreement now applies to people crossing between ports of entry, it does not apply to those who have already been in the country for at least 14 days.
“We’ve had people just hide in random areas, not even in shelters,” Daoud said.
While they won’t share data for “logistical” reasons, the RCMP says there has been an increase in covert border crossings in the northern and southern directions since the new system was put in place.
“On the other side of the Quebec-US border, there isn’t a day or night that some immigrants are not stopped by police (whether they’re going north or south),” said Sgt. Charles Poirier wrote in an email. “For this reason, we have adapted our patrols and are now investigating some smuggling networks.”
He said a recent case in which a woman gave birth in the woods near Potton, Quebec, after her family was stranded, highlights “the new reality we are now facing.”
US Border Patrol Chief Agent Robert Garcia wrote this week that agents patrolling a section of the border that includes Vermont, New Hampshire and eastern New York apprehended more than 5,400 subjects in just over 10 months, more than the past nine years combined. .