Manitoba refugee advocates fear change to border policy will hurt people, not help them
Immigration lawyer fears change could lead to more clandestine movement of people, periods of hiding
Advocates for refugees in Manitoba fear a recent change in Canada-U.S. border policy will hurt more people fleeing persecution than reduce harm, as intended.
Late last week, Ottawa negotiated a deal with the United States that would allow Canada to turn back migrants coming north at irregular crossing points such as the U.S.-Canada border near Emerson, Man.
The deal applies the Safe Third Country Agreement (new window) across the entire Canada-United States border, instead of only at official entry points. It no longer allows 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, provided they are found within 14 days of arriving in Canada.
The deal took effect two days after it was announced. Alastair Clarke, a Winnipeg immigration and refugee lawyer, said that wasn't enough time for refugees already on the way to Canada.
He also said this could lead to more clandestine movement of people.
This is going to lead to refugee claimants going into hiding after they come to Canada, Clarke said Sunday in an interview.
It's also going to put extreme stress on both the individuals who are seeking our protection, as well as individuals who may want to help them while they are waiting for that 14-day period to elapse.
The Safe Third Country Agreement, which came into force in 2004, stipulates 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.
It has been criticized heavily for encouraging refugees and other migrants to make dangerous journeys away from entry points. Two men from Ghana lost their fingers to frostbite while crossing into Canada from North Dakota in 2016, while a family of four from India died of exposure trying to cross from Manitoba to Minnesota in 2022.
- Refugees who lost fingers to frostbite in near-fatal 2016 bid to cross border become Canadian citizens (new window)
Louise Simbandumwe, a member of Immigration Matters in Canada Coalition, said Canada should have simply cancelled the agreement rather than applying it to the entire expanse of the border with the United States.
If the safe third country agreement wasn't in place, refugee claimants could just come to a regular border crossing, make the refugee claim and go through the processes that are in place to determine whether or not they have a legitimate fear of persecution, she said Sunday in an interview.
The Safe Third Country Agreement is what's created this whole situation in the first place, so with the amendment and with people being afraid of being turned away, the concern is that they're going to turn more to smugglers and that they will try to cross at even more remote locations.
Simbadumwe, who fled genocide in Burundi as a child, said some Canadians may not realize refugees are already facing harm, whether or not they attempt an arduous and dangerous journey.
I'm just really concerned we're placing more lives at risk and that people who don't even attempt the journey — who would legitimately be refugees — are going to end up being turned back to their countries of origin and face torture, imprisonment and death.
Canada, she said, only takes in a small fraction of the world's refugees and could absorb more people, especially given this country's labour shortage and slow population growth.
Clarke said he also believes Canada should not have amended the Safe Third Country Agreement while the Supreme Court is in the midst of deliberating on whether or not the deal violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The change to border policy also has supporters. Emerson's reeve welcomed the amendment, stating it should discourage irregular border crossings from the U.S. into Canada and vice versa.
We've always seen this as being dangerous, especially at certain times of year when it's really cold, Dave Carlson said on Saturday. "We've had some tragedies that way.
I just think it's safer for anyone involved.
CBC News with files from Bartley Kives, Issa Kixen and Erin Brohman