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New deal with U.S. allows Canada to turn back migrants at the border

Deal closes loophole which allowed migrants to make asylum claims between ports of entry
Richard Raycraft
March 27, 2023

Ottawa has negotiated a border deal with the United States that would allow Canada to turn back migrants coming from the U.S. who are looking to make asylum claims at unofficial points of entry such as Roxham Road.

The deal would apply the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) across the entire Canada-United States border. It would close a loophole which allowed migrants arriving in Canada from the United States between official ports of entry to make asylum claims. Canadian authorities patrolling the border are now able to turn asylum seekers back to the United States.

The agreement, which came into force in 2004, stipulates that asylum seekers must make their claims in the first safe country they reach.

The deal also allows American authorities to turn back asylum seekers travelling to the United States from Canada.

"To address irregular migration, we are expanding the Safe Third Country Agreement to apply not only at designated ports of entry, but across the entire land border, including internal waterways, ensuring fairness and more orderly migration between our two countries," a release from the Prime Minister's Office says.

The change is set to take effect on Saturday at 12:01 a.m.

"Both of our countries believe in safe, fair and orderly migration, refugee protection, and border security. This is why we will now apply the Safe Third Country Agreement to asylum seekers who cross between official points of entry," Trudeau said at a news conference Friday.

"After midnight tonight, police and border officers will enforce the agreement, and return irregular border crossers to the closest port of entry with the United States."

As part of the deal, Canada has agreed to accept 15,000 migrants from the Western Hemisphere through official channels over the next year.

The news comes during Joe Biden's first official visit to Canada as U.S. president.

Biden mentioned the change in his address Friday to a joint session of Parliament. He thanked Canada for agreeing to take in the 15,000 migrants.

"The United States and Canada will work together to discourage unlawful border crossings and fully implement the updated Safe Third Country Agreement," Biden said to applause from the assembled parliamentarians.

A document about the deal from the United States Department of Homeland Security said the STCA will now apply to any migrants arriving between official ports of entry who "make an asylum or other protection claim relating to a fear of persecution or torture within 14 days after such crossing."

The document says Canada and the United States negotiated the change to the STCA nearly a year ago. At the news conference Friday, Trudeau said the complexity of managing the vast Canada-U.S. border and the need to ensure Canada is meeting its obligations to asylum seekers were the reasons for the delay.

Trudeau added that Canada's agreement to accept 15,000 migrants is compensation for the closure of unofficial border crossing points like Roxham Road.

Canadian law requires that travellers to Canada arrive in the country at an official port of entry, but asylum seekers who come to Canada illegally can legally make a claim, and are not charged or prosecuted while their asylum claims are processed.

The loophole became a source of tension between Canada and the United States due to a spike in migrants arriving in Canada via Roxham Road. The road, about 50 km south of Montreal, runs from Quebec to New York State. Of 39,540 asylum seekers arriving in Canada illegally by land last year, 39,171 came to Quebec, according to government data.

In a letter to the prime minister earlier this year, Quebec Premier Fran├žois Legault said the number of asylum seekers was putting a strain on his province's social services. He urged the prime minister to close Roxham Road, as did Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre.

Trudeau said in response that the only way to close Roxham Road is to renegotiate the STCA. Trudeau said his ministers were working hard to get a deal done.

Poilievre on Friday blamed Trudeau for the increased number of migrants at Roxham.

"We never had this problem until Justin Trudeau created the infrastructure, and gave the message that this was the right way to enter Canada," Poilievre said.

"We hope that he will undo some of the damage he caused in this new agreement with the United States of America. We will watch very carefully."

Poilievre called on the government to speed up processing of immigration applications and asylum claims from those who have arrived lawfully "so that we can bring more brilliant Canadians to help build our country."

Experts told CBC News they fear the closure of Roxham Road could violate Canada's international obligations and result in deaths as asylum seekers look for other, more dangerous ways to cross the border.

An appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada filed in 2021 is challenging the constitutionality of the STCA. The appellants argue the agreement violates refugee claimants' charter rights because, under the STCA, Canadian authorities cannot consider whether their American counterparts will respect claimants' rights under international law.

Human rights group decries deal
Amnesty International, a human rights advocacy group, condemned the changes to the STCA.

"Closing Roxham Road by extending the Safe Third Country Agreement is an affront to the rights of refugee claimants seeking safety in Canada," Ketty Nivyabandi, secretary general of Amnesty International in Canada, said in a media statement.

"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."

Nivyabandi said it's "unconscionable" that the government would make the change while the Supreme Court is reviewing the STCA. Amnesty International is one of the parties in that case.

Canada's population grew by record 1 million in 2022, spurred by international migration
Biden and Trudeau said in a joint statement Friday that they anticipate the agreement "will deter irregular migration at our shared border."

Nivyabandi disagreed, saying the change will only push migrants to attempt to cross at more remote and dangerous locations along the border, or force them to rely on smugglers.

She called on Canada to withdraw from the agreement entirely.

"This would encourage safe, orderly crossings at the Canada-U.S. border and help ensure that people's right to make a refugee claim is protected."