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Closing Roxham Road will lead to ‘humanitarian catastrophes,’ immigration experts warn

Quebec immigration experts say closing Roxham Road to asylum seekers may go against Canada’s international obligations and could result in more deaths at the border, after an already deadly year. 

Two men died attempting to cross the Canadian border within two months of each other.

The first, 43-year-old Fritznel Richard, was trying to reach his family in Florida in time for the holidays. His body was found in early January. The second, Jose Leos Cervantes, 45, was also heading into the United States on Feb. 19, and collapsed just as U.S. border patrollers approached him and the two people he was with, shortly after they had made it into Vermont. 

Richard and Leos Cervantes were crossing into the States, whereas people taking the Roxham Road unofficial border crossing south of Montreal are coming into Canada. Experts say the very reason the crossing became popular is because it is accessible and safe. They worry its closure will simply lead people to take the kinds of risks that have resulted in the deaths of people heading south. 

“The global result of this is just more danger, more deaths and more humanitarian catastrophes,” said Mireille Paquet, an assistant professor of political science at Concordia University.

Details of the deal reached between Canada and the U.S. to close Roxham Road leaked to various media outlets over the course of Wednesday afternoon, hours before U.S President Joe Biden was set to arrive in Ottawa for his two-day visit with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Friday’s agreement between the prime minister and Biden, which actually dates to April 2022, evokes an evolving global approach to surging migration: widening legal pathways while cutting off the irregular ones.

Radio-Canada reports the closure will take effect at midnight.

Details of the agreement were released Friday afternoon in a joint statement made by the two leaders.

The statement says the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection “enshrines our belief that irregular migration requires a regional approach centred on expanding legal pathways and humane border management and recognizes that we must address the underlying economic and security drivers of migration.”

Under this principle, Canada will welcome an additional 15,000 migrants on a humanitarian basis from the Western Hemisphere over the course of the year to continue expanding safe, regular pathways as an alternative to irregular migration.

Before the meeting, the L.A. Times and Le Devoir reported that migrants who are caught within 14 days of making it across the border into Canada outside of official checkpoints would be deported. Those details were not released in the joint statement.

Two police officers wearing masks great a man in a beige sweatsuit, seen from the back.
An asylum seeker from Afghanistan prepares to cross the border at Roxham Road from New York into Canada on Friday March 24, 2023 in Champlain, N.Y. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Prior to the joint statement’s release, Stéphanie Valois, the president of the Quebec association of immigration lawyers (AQAADI), said the deal could go against international conventions Canada has signed.

Those agreements stipulate that refugees “should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom,” according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees website.

Valois said it’s unlikely that closing Roxham — where an RCMP post has been set up to briefly detain and process asylum seekers — will stop people from crossing altogether, and that it would only prompt migrants to go into hiding after arriving in Canada. 

“It seems completely counter-productive to me,” she said.

‘Worst scenario possible’

Paquet noted that 15,000 is a low number compared to the amount of asylum seekers other countries, such as the U.S. and Germany, accept every year, as well as in comparison to the nearly 40,000 migrants, primarily from Haiti, Turkey, Colombia, Chile, Pakistan and Venezuela, who crossed at Roxham Road in 2022. 

There are currently 4.6 million people seeking asylum across the world, according the UNHCR’s latest figures.

Accepting migrant crossings at the border does not mean accepting them to stay permanently, she said, echoing Valois, but accepting to heart “their story and their request for protection,” as outlined in the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees signed in 1951. 

“This is closing the passage, but it’s also turning our backs on our international commitments,” Paquet said. 

Frantz André has helped hundreds of asylum seekers after arriving in Quebec through Roxham Road. He flew to Florida in late January to bring Fritznel Richard’s ashes to his wife Guenda and to attend Richard’s funeral in Naples. 

André struggled to believe the deal, which would in effect mean Canada will no longer accept asylum seekers at the border, if they already made a claim in the U.S. 

“There’s no way — I mean, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “We’re simply creating the worst scenario possible.”

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