Roxham Road refugees immigration Quebec Canada

Roxham Road closure an inhumane, short-sighted solution

“Closing Roxham betrays a lack of understanding of global migration challenges that will continue for decades to come. Immigration advocacy groups warn this will only incentivize human smugglers. It’s perhaps only a matter of time before humanitarian tragedies like the ones occurring almost daily elsewhere happen here, too.”

A deal between the U.S. and Canada (apparently brokered a year ago but only announced last week), aimed at stopping asylum seekers from entering the shared land border via Roxham Road, is now in full effect. Those trying to enter will be turned away. A sign declaring as much has been installed at the crossing. 

As media stationed at the border started reporting on the closure and political reactions to the announcement poured in, the contrast between the powerful and the powerless couldn’t be starker. 

Elation for some, despair for others

Gifts for children of asylum seekers made by a volunteer at the Welcome Collective

Quebec Premier François Legault rejoiced at the news, declaring the closure “a beautiful victory for Quebec.” I get it…. If you’re the premier of a province that’s been dealing with the overwhelming bulk of irregular asylum claimants for the past five years, and who blames them for Quebec’s strained social services, you can understandably express some relief at the news. But to express joy at successfully slamming the door on desperate people’s faces is not a good look.

At the same time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have refrained from making tactless celebratory statements, but federal sources for his administration didn’t hold back, telling journalists “it was a big deal, a big win. Some would say even too good to be true.” Again, if you’re the leader of a country negotiating with a superpower reluctant to update an agreement that has become a political lightning rod for your administration, it’s understandable that you’re pleased with your political chess move. 

Not so for the poor pawns affected. 

I found it hard to listen to chest-thumping declarations while images of weary, scared asylum seekers —some travelling for weeks or months after spending the last of their money to get here and completely unaware of the new rules — arriving at Roxham, only to be turned away, started making the news.

There’s an image appearing in La Presse, taken at the border by freelance photojournalist Josie Desmarais, that’s particularly hard to look at. It’s of a little girl in a pink coat clutching a stuffed animal, her worried mother pulling a heavy suitcase behind her, while a border officer holds a prohibitive hand up yelling “Stop, stop, stop!” This image, too, is now Canada. 

Lack of political will

It’s a fact that an increase in asylum requests overwhelmed an unprepared system, and that Quebec bore the brunt of welcoming, housing and providing services for most of them. Even if the province was financially compensated by the feds for expenses incurred, the lack of political will to prioritize or allocate more funds to those helping claimants forced organizations and food banks to max out their resources. Slow processing times and corresponding investments in personnel from the feds didn’t help matters much either. Those working with asylum claimants have been begging for more help for years now, their pleas mostly falling on deaf ears. Our so-called “capacity” was exceeded because there was no political will, not because we lack space or resources. 

As political pressure from Quebec and the ROC intensified, the Trudeau administration started secretly negotiating a new Safe Third Country Agreement — an agreement that suddenly pretends that the U.S. is a safe country, even though the circumstances making it unsafe for asylum seekers remain. 

Why Canada? 

The reasons why people came to Canada is because we have a reputation for being a safer country; a place where asylum requests are handled more quickly, more fairly and more humanely, allowing for less restrictive definitions for asylum. In the U.S., asylum seekers are far more likely to be jailed and deported. A look at Canadian data, as revealed by Reuters, shows that Canada accepted more than 46% of irregular asylum claims in the past 12 months, while the U.S. accepted only 14%. It’s only natural then that displaced people desperate to restart their lives might look to us as a lifeline.

Closing Roxham is a short-sighted solution that betrays a lack of understanding of global migration challenges that will continue to affect most of the world for decades to come. We overestimate the severity of the issue because of the way it’s often discussed. The truth is that Canada’s asylum claims are a tiny drop in the ocean in comparison to other countries.

For example, Canada had more than 70,000 pending refugee claims last year, while the U.S. had about 788,000! Part of the new agreement aims to alleviate pressure to the U.S., by Canada taking in an additional 15,000 migrants over the next year from South and Central America.

In 2022, a total of 244,132 asylum applications were filed in Germany and 1.2 million refugees are currently living there. That’s more than the total number of refugees Canada has welcomed since 1980! There are currently 3.2 million refugees living in Turkey, a country 13 times smaller than Canada and far less wealthy. 

As much media coverage as Roxham Road has gotten (primarily in Quebec), most of the refugees Canada receives don’t even come through that crossing. They come through official channels and by air. Closing it won’t be the miraculous solution some think it will be. 

Safer options should have been chosen

The humanitarian solution according to refugee advocates would have been to allow asylum seekers to cross at official ports of entry (with no threat of being returned on sight) and seek refuge across the country in all provinces. Better investments in the system itself would speed up processing claims and allow those seeking asylum to start working and contribute to the Canadian economy.

During the announcement, Prime Minister Trudeau stated that “keeping people safe also includes keeping asylum-seekers safe.” It’s a blatantly hypocritical statement to make while signing an agreement that both Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees want the Canadian government to suspend precisely because it’s considered unsafe. A legal challenge to the STCA’s constitutionality is now before the Canadian Supreme Court.

Allowing asylum seekers to cross at official ports of entry and seek refuge across the country would have allowed people a safe way of processing claims and fairly spread out the initial burden of welcoming and housing asylum seekers. Instead, those now attempting to cross into Canada via the U.S. will be returned to the U.S, banned from ever applying for asylum in Canada again, and most will be jailed or deported back to their countries — countries they spent months, and sometimes years, fleeing from, in fear for their lives. 

Closure could increase unsafe human trafficking

People who are desperate don’t stop because a sign telling them to stop has suddenly been erected. They’ll continue trying to enter, but will do so in a much more secretive, more dangerous fashion. Immigration advocacy groups warn this will only incentivize bad-faith actors and create jobs for human smugglers. It’s perhaps only a matter of time before humanitarian tragedies like the ones occurring almost daily elsewhere happen here, too. 

Not only will Canada be unable to vet and keep a record of the people who enter illegally but many might die trying. Migration experts have made it repeatedly clear that increased deterrent methods, like those legislated in Europe (U.K., Greece, Italy, Hungary, etc.) don’t work. The humanitarian consequences of this approach have become increasingly clear over the years. Since 2014, more than 50,000 migrants are known to have died worldwide. Most of them are at the bottom of the Mediterranean. Almost 60% of them are unidentified. Their families will never know what happened to them. Deterrent methods don’t decrease migration, they only increase migrant death. Because desperate people continue to do what they need to do to survive –take dangerous chances.  

Displacement is a global challenge 

Short-sighted solutions and increased NIMBYism won’t work because migration won’t be deterred. The sooner politicians realize that, the sooner they can allocate money where it’s needed most urgently and put in place real measures that support and help both the people arriving and the people welcoming them. We know we can do it because we’ve done it before. 

In just over a year, we collectively welcomed more than 167,585 Ukrainian refugees in Canada quickly and efficiently with very little handwringing. Why? Because the political will was available, and Canadians generally saw them as deserving of help. We need to ask ourselves why we don’t think that people fleeing violence in Haiti, Afghanistan, Somalia or Colombia deserve our help, too. 

Challenging popular myths about refugees

Roxham Road refugees immigration Quebec Canada

Now more than ever, it’s important to remember that irregular migrants arriving at Roxham Road were never illegal under Canadian or international immigration law, no matter how many times the term was used. They have a legal right to seek safety and the countries they seek help from have the legal responsibility to treat them with dignity. Like novelist and former refugee Dina Nayeri wrote, “It is the obligation of every person born in a safer room to open the door when someone knocks.”

For those who aren’t particularly moved by humanitarian reasons, and prefer hard facts, here are some: Refugees have almost the same unemployment rate as those born in Canada, according to the UNHCR. Canadian tax data shows that a significant proportion of refugees who’ve been in Canada for at least five years earn middle-class incomes. Over time, refugees pay more in income tax on average than they receive in public benefits and services. Half of refugees (51%) working are employed in high-skilled jobs (doctors, dentists and software engineers.)  

More refugees than Canadian-born citizens create jobs for themselves (and others) by opening their own businesses. Syrian refugee and Peace by Chocolate owner Tareq Hadhad is a good example. Unlike the tropes routinely employed by xenophobes, of foreigners “stealing Canadian jobs,” while somehow simultaneously “living off welfare,” Hadhad created a business that employs more than 75 people, making it the third largest employer in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. 

Don’t penalize those with the least

Hadhad wasn’t, of course, randomly invited to the Biden state visit. As one of 45,000 Syrian refugees successfully relocated here, he’s a reminder that, as disappointing as the Roxham development is, there’s still much to be proud of. 

In 2021, Canada was the largest receiver of resettled refugees, making the country the global leader in resettlement three years running. Canada has also set an ambitious plan to bring in more than 1.3 million newcomers over the next three years to support its post-pandemic economic growth. In 2021, we welcomed more than 405,000 people. 

While I appreciate that the Canadian government never engages in dangerous and dehumanizing rhetoric when it speaks of asylum seekers, that still doesn’t let them off the hook when it comes to doing better for those with the least. The Trudeau administration shouldn’t have caved to public pressure and should have continued seeking a more comprehensive, long-term and humane solution.

We’re talking about human beings running for their lives here — fleeing war, famine and violence. Human beings who deserve to be treated as people, not a problem. And we should hold politicians and governments that fail to do so to task, not congratulate them for bartering deals that penalize those with absolutely nothing. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.