Fritznel Richard Roxham Road asylum seeker

Reaction to death of asylum seeker near Roxham Road reveals shocking lack of compassion

44-year-old Fritznel Richard, an asylum seeker from Haiti who was trying to reunite with his family for Christmas, froze to death in the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle woods near a crossing point between Canada and the U.S.

Last week, a man’s frozen body was found in the St-Bernard-de-Lacolle woods near the Roxham Road crossing point between Canada and the U.S. He died from hypothermia. Within days it was confirmed the body belonged to 44-year-old Fritznel Richard, an asylum seeker from Haiti who had been reported missing by his family just before Christmas. 

A journalist for La Presse who spoke with his widow would later confirm that Richard was trying to cross the border on Dec. 23 to reunite with his family in the U.S. He had initially paid a smuggler to drive him across, only to find himself alone in the middle of nowhere during a snowstorm after an argument took place. Richard’s wife spoke to her husband for the last time when he realized he was lost. She urged him to call the police but — worried he would be deported back to Haiti — Richard refused. Unable to find his way out of the woods, he froze to death that night. “I’m dying, I love you,” were his last words to his wife. His body wouldn’t be found for another two weeks. A tragic, horrific, lonely death. 

A troubling lack of compassion

“Man’s body found near border” as a headline elicited shock and sympathy from many, but it also elicited its fair share of uninformed and ugly comments on social media. The kind of comments that make you lose a little faith in humanity.

“One less migrant to think about.” 

“Considering the cost of housing and feeding these criminals it would be a whole lot cheaper to put up a nice, big fence.”

“There probably wasn’t an RCMP officer around to help with his luggage so he must have died of exhaustion.” 

Nothing is apparently funnier to some than the death of another human being who did nothing morally or criminally wrong, other than try to cross over a man-made partition to reach his family. 

There are so many migrants who’ve died or gone missing on the perilous journey to a better life (most of them on their way to Europe) that The New Yorker published a piece on them only days ago. The Crisis of Missing Migrants. Thousands upon thousands of people lying on the bottom of the ocean, buried in unmarked graves, their families never to know what happened to them. 

“Look at all these borders foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate,” writes Somali-British poet Warsan Shire.

The incomprehension of desperation 

The Patel family died near the Manitoba border a year ago.

It’s not the first time such tragedies have taken place — and it certainly won’t be the last. Many news outlets pointed out it was almost a year to the day that a family of four from India were found frozen near the Canada-U.S. border in Manitoba. The parents in their 30s, an 11-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy. 

People’s lack of empathy usually signals their failure to understand the many reasons why refugees and asylum seekers do incomprehensible-to-them things, undertake risky actions, willingly put themselves in harm’s way for the promise of a better life. They scoff and shake their heads from the comfort of their privilege, insisting they would never do something this foolish, never put their lives or the lives of their children at risk, never do something illegal. 

They, of course, don’t have the slightest idea of what they would do if cornered and bleeding desperation. They’re just convinced they would be smarter, do better, most certainly play by the rule book. That ever-changing rule book that ever-changing governments devise… 

They ultimately fail to understand that — by the grace of God and sheer dumb luck — that could be them.

Migration is a fundamental human right

Despite the often-quoted statement that migration through Roxham Road is illegal, it’s not. Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, refugee claimants who enter Canada at unofficial (irregular) points of entry and file a refugee claim are allowed to stay in the country until their case is heard. No crime is committed. The right to seek refuge from danger and persecution is a fundamental right protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. International law recognizes this, regardless of how someone enters a country. Using the term “illegal” is deliberate. It transforms vulnerable people who need help into dangerous criminals who must be turned away, penalized and prosecuted. 

The Safe Third Country Agreement forces asylum seekers to make claims for protection in the first country they arrive in, either the U.S. or Canada. It’s based on the premise that both countries are “safe” and treat refugees fairly. But rights groups argue the U.S. is no longer a safe country for refugees. The agreement is currently being challenged in court, with human rights advocates arguing the agreement violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and international law, as well as puts asylum seekers at risk by forcing them to take more dangerous journeys to cross the border. 

At the same time, it’s unlikely that closing unofficial border crossings will slow the arrival of asylum seekers. It’s been well documented that when there are few legal means to migrate, desperate people will seek other less-safe options. Restrictive immigration policies have only made asylum seekers more vulnerable to human trafficking and unscrupulous smugglers. There’s nothing people won’t do to escape misery, danger or possible death. No border, no fence, no wall, no increased patrol, no threats or draconian sanctions will ever change that. Barriers to safe migration don’t decrease migration, they only increase unnecessary migrant deaths.

Draconian anti-immigration legislation only makes things more deadly for migrants from certain countries who have no money, no connections, no political or social clout, and no options. Countries, I might add, that have often been irreparably destabilized by Western governments and are dealing with decades’ worth of economic and societal upheaval that often make a viable future in one’s place of birth an impossibility.

Richard’s case is just one of many. A few years ago, I remember reading about a young man from the Dominican who wanted to see his daughter, in the U.S. with her mom. Thirty-two-year-old Wilson Reynoso Vega flew from Santo Domingo to Toronto on a tourist visa, hoping to be allowed to enter the U.S. from there. When it didn’t work, because of additional hurdles implemented by the Trump administration to deter foreigners, he found his way to the Quebec-New York border and paid a smuggler $3,500 to get him across illegally. The smuggler left the group about two kilometres from the border and told them to “just keep walking straight.” 

A Washington Post article details how the group started navigating through the marshy woodland on the northwestern shore of Lake Champlain (an area that locals would never attempt to walk through because it’s spongy like quicksand) as the temperatures dropped to freezing. “At some point Vega became disoriented and separated from the group.” When they made it across, the rest of the group reported him as missing. 

His body was found on the Canadian side of the border the next day. An autopsy determined he had died from drowning in 40 centimetres of water. The coroner said his hypothermia had caused him to become disoriented and unable to even lift his face up to prevent his death. He drowned in a puddle. 

An ever-increasing humanitarian crisis

Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter

No one leaves home and seeks asylum unless they feel that they have no other recourse. 

Despite the mistaken belief that asylum seekers get an easy ride once they enter Canada, reality is very different. Richard had been waiting for over a year for documents that would allow him to work. Desperate, disillusioned, alone and probably missing his family before Christmas, he decided to risk crossing into the U.S. to rejoin them. It was a risk that would cost him his life. 

There are legitimate conversations to be had about backlogs in asylum requests and significant delays in eligibility interviews. Asylum seekers often end up being separated from their families for years, since it is only after refugee status is granted that a person can apply for family reunification. The pandemic and a constant stream of asylum requests have undoubtedly compromised our immigration processing systems’ ability to handle requests in an acceptable timeframe. These challenges have also allowed unscrupulous smugglers to profit from them. 

But there’s a monumental difference between treating inevitable, ever-increasing and often life-saving migration as a global humanitarian challenge that needs to be compassionately and responsibly addressed and treating it as a troublesome infestation that needs to be stamped out. How we treat human beings at their lowest also defines who we are as humans. 

People don’t deserve death for attempting to find a better life and escaping misery we know nothing about. Migration routes don’t have to be littered with death. Caravans of desperate people walking for months hoping to be granted asylum don’t have to face such cruelty. It’s a deliberate political choice that they so often do.

And the hypocritical randomness of migration ethics and who gets to have an opportunity at second chances continues to irk me. In 2019, a Salvadoran man and his 23-month-old daughter drowned in the Rio Grande attempting to cross the border into the U.S. The bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter Valeria were found laying side by side, the girl’s tiny hand draped over her father’s neck. 

There’s something so vulgar about these migrant deaths while Mexico is currently a playground for American and Canadian “digital nomads” and “ex-pats” (notice how they’re never referred to as “migrants” — that’s a dirty word only reserved for the unwanted — even though it just delineates a person who moves from one place to another to find work or better living conditions), taking advantage of cheap living costs and sunny climes. Both groups are crossing borders for the exact same reason: better quality of life, but it’s only one group that’s considered deserving of their choices, making legal migration (temporary or not) easier to attain for them. 

The randomness of assigned value

Status, country, nationality and access to safety are often nothing more than circumstantial. A genetic lottery at best. If you have the misfortune of being born in a war zone, you’re forced to flee, often locked up in some horrific migration camp until some country takes you in, or you’re cursed to wander the earth looking for a new home. Sometimes you luck out and the door opens, and sometimes you die trying.

Earthquakes, political instability, civil war, violence, deportation, tsunamis, military regimes, famine… Most people on this planet are just tossed around in life by circumstances they rarely instigated. I think most privileged people cling to their deluded sense of meritocracy because to acknowledge the arbitrary quality of advantages handed to us would be to admit our entire existence can be altered at the drop of a hat. It’s terrifying to acknowledge that precarity. 

“I hear them say, go home,” writes Warsan Shire. “I hear them say, fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really that arrogant? Do they not know that stability is like a lover with a sweet mouth upon your body one second and the next you are a tremor lying on the floor covered in rubble and old currency waiting for its return?” 

They don’t know. Most importantly, they don’t know how lucky they are not to know. ■

To read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis, please click here.