The Other Side Of The Northern Border: Canada Grapples With Border Refugees

The Canada border at Roxham Road near Champlain, New York. Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police staff this unofficial crossing 24 hours a day. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

CHAMPLAIN, New York—Washington has ended a temporary residency program for almost 60,000 Haitians allowed to legally enter the United States following an earthquake in 2010. The affected Haitians will have to leave the US by 2019. The program has also been revoked for two thousand Nicaraguans and it’s unclear if other groups including 300,000 Salvadorans will be allowed to remain. The net result is a continued flow of people crossing the border into Canada by foot. They are taking advantage of a footnote in a Canada-US treaty that says foot crossers won’t be turned back from Canada until their case is heard.

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The Canada border at Roxham Road near Champlain, New York. Canada's Royal Canadian Mounted Police staff this unofficial crossing 24 hours a day. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

After cresting this past summer, the story continues to unfold at places such as Roxham Road, north of Champlain in upstate New York. The United States Border Patrol says illegal crossings on foot into Canada are also taking place in Vermont. Only now, before they cross on foot, people like Mansour, a 37-year-old engineer from Yemen, are met by a group of women, Canadians and Americans, that includes Janet McFetridge of Champlain.

A man from Congo speaks with RCMP officers after illegally entering Canada. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

The man from Congo was then frisked before being processed in the white trailer. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

“Do you need any warm socks?” asked McFetridge asked Mansour. “No I have some in my luggage. Thank-you. God bless you,” he replied.

Janet McFetridge from Champlain, New York (L) Wendy Ayotte (C) from Havelock, Quebec and Heather Deans (R) of Champlain await the arrival of refugees. The trio brings a basket filled with scarves, socks and hats to offer people crossing illegally into Canada. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

Mansour then gazed for an instant at the border.  His eyes were sullen, his expression gloomy, and he moved slowly. He said his U.S. work visa is scheduled to expire in two months. He said he can’t contemplate the risk of returning to war-torn Yemen. “(There is) suffering and it is an unsafe place,” he said.

Mansour started walking slowly but deliberately on the final steps to the border with Canada. Canadian police tried to stop him and a family of five Nigerians.  “This is Canada, right? If you cross the line here, you’ll be arrested for illegal entry,” the officer stated from the Canadian side.

A man from Haiti scurries past Canadian police officers after crossing into Canada at night. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

“Do you understand?” The people in the group said they did. They then crossed and were arrested. A spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said crossings take place on daily basis. A few minutes later, a Haitian man stepped out of taxi that brought him from the bus station in Plattsburgh. There is large Haitian community in Montréal and he has friends there, he said. I asked him about conditions in his country.

“Very difficult,” he replied. He said Haiti hasn’t nearly recovered from the earthquake, and the country’s plagued by large-scale floods, the most recent in November. “My life, I almost lose my life. So I look for a place to go,” he said.

More than 9000 people seeking refugee status entered the Province of Quebec alone between August and November 1st. By comparison, just over 2400 crossed by foot into all of Canada last year, something Janet McFetridge sees every day.

As of October 2017, UN peacekeepers have withdrawn from Haiti. They were there to stabilize the country, the western hemisphere’s poorest nation. (photo: Lorne Matalon)


More than 9000 people seeking refugee status entered the Province of Quebec alone between August and November 1st. By comparison, just over 2400 crossed by foot into all of Canada last year.

People are crossing the northern border because of a curious legal paradox known as the Safe Third Country Agreement. It’s a treaty with the U.S. that says if you make a claim for refugee status at a legal border crossing into Canada, you’ll be sent back because the US is considered safe for refugees. But if you can somehow cross into Canada illegally, the treaty doesn’t apply and you can remain in Canada while your case is decided, a process that can take years.

“I’m not sure that going to Canada is the best decision for all of them,”said McFetridge. But I just think it’s very, very unfortunate that people are leaving our country to go into a future (with)  certainly no guarantees. And many of them are going to be deported into terrible situations. I just wish we could help them more here.”

Canada has increased deportations of would-be refugees this year. McFetridge hands out gloves and hats with her friend Wendy Ayotte from Havelock, Quebec, a village of 750 people on the Canadian side of border. Ayotte is unwavering in her opposition to the Safe Third Country Agreement.

“We want the Safe Third Country suspended or annulled altogether because we don’t think the States are safe for refugees anymore,” Ayotte stated. She is not alone. Calls in Canada to cancel the agreement are growing. More than 200 lawyers along with law students have been gathering evidence to mount a legal case against it. Amnesty International has also called for an end to the treaty.

“I think we are all shocked by the numbers,” said Eric Taillefer, a member of the Quebec Association of Immigration Lawyers.

In his office in Montréal, Taillefer said allowing refugees to apply at a legal crossing would allow Canada to focus more on security, because presumably someone with, for example, links terrorism would not consider a legal crossing.

“Then if you cross in somewhere else, we could ask the question. ‘Why did you cross this way? Are you a security risk?”

On the border at Roxham Road, a man from Burundi told an RCMP officer that he can’t return to the African nation. “They going to kill us over there,” he said in a voice raised so that the officer could hear him clearly.

Even after crossing, the process of getting admitted permanently to Canada is uncertain at best. People keep coming illegally, however, because while their claim for refugee status proceeds, they know they will at least be safe.


Immigration Tribunals Stressed As Refugee Applicants Arrive in Canada On Foot

MONTREAL, Quebec—The flow of people seeking refugee status in Canada has grown exponentially in recent months. More people have walked into the Province of Quebec since August than in all of 2016 across the entire length of the Canadian border. On one recent day, people from Yemen, Haiti, Burundi and Nigeria as they crossed illegally into Canada from upstate New York seeking  refugee status. Had they tried to cross at a legal border crossing, they would have been sent back immediately. The net result is a continued flow of migrants on foot who don’t use legal border crossings, testing a nation that historically welcomes refugees.

Canada’s refugee system has become overloaded since the U.S. presidential election. If you apply to stay in Canada as a refugee, you are supposed to get a hearing within 60 days. That just isn’t happening. There aren’t enough lawyers to process a mounting backlog. Now Canada is weighing its traditional welcome for refugees against the country’s ability to absorb them.

Agathe St Preux in Montréal, November 2017. She lived in Miami for 12 years before crossing into Canada at Roxham Road in August. Her asylum case in Canada is pending. (photo: Lorne Matalon)


In Montréal, I met Haitians who were sharing their stories from the migrant trail. Agathe St Preux is at the table. She lived in Miami for 12 years. This summer, as signs signaled the end of a temporary US residency program for Haitians, St Preux crossed into Canada and made her way to Montréal.

“I breathe better, life is quiet here, people are kind,” she said, her infectious smile lighting up the room.

Migration dynamics are different in Canada. The country has historically valued the skills and money that many migrants, especially well educated professionals, bring in. Today Canada particularly values foreign hi-tech workers and caregivers for the elderly, two groups with widely divergent income levels. Canada said recently that it plans to raise the numbers of migrants that it will accept between now and 2020.

Immigration lawyer and David Berger is a member of the Canadian Council of Refugees, an NGO that advocates for migrants. Berger is also Canada’s former Ambassador to Israel and a former member of Canada’s Parliament. “We’ve got a backlog today of 30,000 claims whereas about two years ago the backlog was 10 or 15 thousand,” he explained. He said there aren’t enough immigration judges, formally known in Canada as decision makers.

“We believe the government has to appoint more decision makers. 120 decision makers is just not enough,” Berger continued. He added that Canada is a better country for the contributions refugees make. He represents or has represented people with advanced degrees in literature and finance, images that defy stereotypes harbored by some anti-immigrant forces.

The river of refugees is affecting public opinion. One national poll has suggested that four in ten Canadians believe the country is taking in too many refugees.

The fate of refugees has also complicated the Canada-U.S. diplomatic relationship at times.  When the Trump administration moved to ban travelers from seven majority Muslim nations and suspend the Syrian refugee program, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated in a now famous tweet in his country that refugees are welcome in Canada.

Marjorie Villefranche heads Maison D’Haiti (Haiti House) in Montréal, a resource center for refugees from many nations. “I think the tension is, how can a country like Canada admit that, you know, the United States is not a safe country? Politically it’s very difficult to say that.”

Alessandra Santopadre is a migrant advocate at the Archdiocese of Montréal. The Archdiocese runs a shelter in a church rectory known as Le Pont, or ‘The Bridge.’ Santopadre acknowledged that rising numbers of Canadians aren’t comfortable with Canada’s refugee levels.

“They start to be afraid because these people, they don’t speak our language, they take our welfare or someone doesn’t want to rent a house to a refugee,” she said. “There are all these problems that stress everybody. But I think that (being) different is not a problem. Different can be a richness.”

The fate of refugees entering the country is a relatively recent conversation in Canada, which does a lot to at least help refugees get started. When a refugee arrives, before a final decision on whether they can or can’t stay permanently, applicants receive a monthly stipend, their children can enroll in school and like all Canadians, they are eligible to receive access to health care.

Migrant advocate Esther Guillaume helps arrange housing for two men from Nigeria who crossed illegally into Canada in November 2017. (photo: Lorne Matalon)

Philip Oxhorn is a political scientist at McGill University. He told me that accommodating those refugees is demanding but manageable. “Undoubtedly there’s been overcrowding. But the state has done as much as one might expect given the huge relative increase in the numbers of people coming.”

Refugees are required to document their fear of persecution on paper before they can be admitted permanently into Canada. Because there have been so many arrivals, the gov’t has extended deadlines by which the paperwork is required to be completed. (photo: Lorne Matalon)


Oxhorn says Canada is wrestling with those numbers. Some government workers have been deployed on weekends to work with refugees. But given the federal government’s plan to boost refugee numbers, he expects the country will continue to value the place that refugees hold in Canada’s multiethnic tapestry.


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