Despite the rain pouring down Saturday morning, about 100 protesters gathered in Montreal’s La Fontaine Park with plastic rain ponchos, umbrellas, signs and flags to set out for a three-day march to Roxham Road, in the Montérégie.
Refugee advocacy groups, migrants and supporters will walk 45 miles to protest the recent closure of the irregular Quebec border crossing to asylum seekers arriving in Canada from the US
“It’s a symbolic walk for us,” said Maryne Poisson, the director of social initiatives at Welcome Collective, a group that helps asylum seekers in Montreal.
Poisson says every day she meets families who are on foot or hitchhiking in “terrible conditions” from places like Brazil, Chile and other countries, suffering relentlessly along the way.
“So this is a super little walk, but we’re doing it thinking about them,” she said.
Claudia Aranda applied for asylum in Canada after fleeing persecution in Chile. She says refugee rights are a matter of life or death.
“I walk because human rights are rights of all people… human rights are not relative,” she said.
Protesters walk in three stretches of about 25 kilometers each. They spend the night under church roofs and are expected at the border on Monday.
Supreme Court upholds controversial deal
The start of the journey comes a day after Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) is constitutional — at least in terms of the right to life, liberty and security.
The agreement, which went into effect in 2004, requires asylum seekers to apply in the first safe country they reach, allowing Canada to return most asylum seekers from the US
Roxham Road, a widely traveled unofficial border crossing for asylum seekers, was previously exempt from this treaty, which only covered official border crossings. A renegotiation of the agreement extended the pact to the entire land border in March, closing the loophole.
Lauren Lallemand, co-director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says the situation is only getting worse now that the border is closed. She wants the agreement withdrawn altogether.
“We’ve seen people die in illegal crossings, so this isn’t just a matter of agreement, it’s really a matter of life and death for vulnerable migrants,” she said.
Before the new treaty came into effect, the Canadian government reported that approximately 4,500 people crossed Roxham Road every month since December 2022.
On Friday, the top court sided with the Canadian government, which argued that the US is a safe place for migrants despite groups saying they are being deported and detained there.
However, in its ruling, the Supreme Court did not rule on whether the STCA violates Article 15 of the Charter of Rights – the article that guarantees equality under the law.
Refugee groups have argued that the US often denies refugee claims citing gender-based violence as the reason for the claim.
The case was referred back to federal court for a review of the policy in light of equality issues. Poisson says there is still hope that the agreement will be scrapped when it goes back to court.
Closing our borders is not the solution
Marisa Berry Mendez, an Amnesty International campaigner who left for Roxham Road on Saturday, thinks Canada should stand up.
“We have international human rights obligations to respect the right to asylum,” she said.
“Closing our borders is not the solution; it doesn’t stop people from seeking protection. It just makes them take more dangerous routes to get there.”
In a statement following Friday’s Supreme Court decision, Canada’s immigration minister said the government will continue to promote safe and regular routes.
“We will continue to work with the United States to ensure that the STCA reflects our commitment to our domestic and international commitments in its application,” said Sean Fraser.
Poisson, for her part, hopes that asylum seekers will have the opportunity to plead their case in Canada.
“We don’t want them to get a status right away; we want them to have a chance to be heard, to explain why they need protection,” she said.