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Asylum seeker deal between US and Canada won't stop drama at border, advocates say

A sign emblazoned with warnings of potential arrest for illegal asylum seekers now looms over the unofficial Canada−U. S. border crossing at Roxham Road in Quebec. But experts who work directly with those hoping to start a new life in Canada say they doubt such warnings, and the new migration rules they’re intended to uphold, will do much to deter cross−border traffic.

Restricting access to the border and preventing migrants from accessing a safe pathway into the country will only incentivize bad−faith actors, said Abdulla Daoud, executive director of Montreal−based The Refugee Centre.

"This type of decision−making … in the past, has led to the creation of many human traffickers and smuggling rings," Daoud said in an interview on Friday. "Canada never really had to deal with that too much. But now I think we’re going to see the numbers increase because these individuals are not going to go away."

The new rules were announced on Friday during U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Ottawa.

It was described in U.S. documents as a "supplement" to the 2004 treaty known as the Safe Third Country Agreement. That treaty prevents people in Canada or in the United States from crossing the border and making a refugee claim in either country — but until now, it only covered official points of entry.

As of Saturday, the treaty started to apply along the nearly 9,000−kilometre border, including at popular unofficial crossings like Roxham Road through which tens of thousands of asylum seekers have entered Canada in the past few years.

All was quiet there on Saturday morning, with only members of the media on−hand awaiting the arrival of new would−be asylum seekers.

The sign installed on Friday and unveiled at midnight when the new agreement took effect now warns newcomers that it is illegal to enter Canada through Roxham Road.

“You will be arrested and may be returned to the United States. Refugee claimants must request protection in the first safe country they arrive in,” the new sign reads.

The executive director of Home of the World, a shelter for asylum seekers and migrants in Montreal, said it is possible that would−be refugees who are determined to cross into Canada may end up dying by taking dangerous routes into the country.

<who> Photo Credit: Canadian Press

"It’s very possible that people will try to cross over using more hidden places and get stuck in the woods for two weeks and end up losing their lives," Eva Gracia−Turgeon said in an interview. "We are talking about not only individuals but also families and pregnant women and young children who are going to cross. So potentially, there will be more drama at the border."

One American official also voiced concern about the impact the new deal would have on residents on the U.S. side of the border.

“This becomes a local issue when you still have an influx of people coming here," said Billy Jones, an assembly member in the New York state legislature. "If they are denied entry, where are they going? What are they doing? As well as the humanitarian part of it. We don’t want people stranded along the border, oftentimes not prepared for the conditions that we have out here.”

The expanded Safe Third Party Agreement will also see Canada commit to welcoming 15,000 immigrants from across the Western Hemisphere this year, more than three times the number previously intended.

But Jenny Kwan, the New Democrat critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, said widening official pathways for seeking asylum will do little to ease pressures at the border.

"In 2022, nearly 40,000 migrants entered the country through Roxham Road," she said in a statement in which she roundly condemned the expanded agreement. "This ineffective measure will not protect Canadians – it will only further endanger and marginalize asylum seekers fleeing persecution and trying to come to safety in Canada."

Both Kwan and the Canadian Council for Refugees also criticized the Liberal government for proceeding with the expansion while the country’s top court is still grappling with questions about the constitutionality of the original deal.

“The Supreme Court (of Canada) is expected to rule soon on whether the existing Safe Third Country Agreement violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — it is shocking that the Canadian government is extending the Agreement while the question of the constitutionality of the Agreement is before the Court,” the council said in a statement.

Amnesty International Canada called the agreement “shameful” and described it as an affront to the rights of refugees.

“People fleeing their home countries, and then risking their lives by crossing irregularly into Canada, would not take such drastic steps if the United States’ immigration and refugee−protection system could be counted on to respect migrants’ rights,” Canadian Secretary−General Ketty Nivyabandi said in a statement.

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