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Miles to Go: Border Crossing under the US-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement

After the September 11 attacks in the United States, the Canadian and American governments decided to further restrict its shared border, signing an agreement called the US – Canada Smart Border Action Plan. As part of this new agreement, the Canada – US Safe Third Country Agreement was created. In an effort to effectively manage refugees coming into North America, this agreement requires asylum seekers coming to one of the two countries to claim refugee status in the first one they arrive in – basically acknowledging that both countries are safe for refugees. Thirteen years after it has come into effect, people are now advocating for its end.

Since the beginning of this year, illegal border crossings into Canada from the United States have greatly increased, mostly on the borders along the provinces of Manitoba and Quebec. According to the refugee resettlement agency Welcome Place, almost 360 people have entered Manitoba on foot since January. Asylum claims in Quebec are also up 230 percent from January 2016, with 452 people claiming asylum at the border in January alone. One of the reasons for this increase of people crossing on foot outside of official border points is the Safe Third Country Agreement.

This agreement complicates the process of claiming asylum in Canada. For those who try and cross into Canada at official border crossings (via plane, train, or land border) but have already claimed asylum in the United States, their asylum claims are often denied because of the agreement. If a person’s refugee claim is rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), they are no longer eligible to claim refugee protection in Canada at any time in their life.

Take for example Mamadou (whose last name has been withheld by news outlets to protect his identity). Originally from Côte d’Ivoire, Mamadou has lived in New York City for the past ten years. His asylum claim has been rejected by the U.S. government but he has been allowed to stay because of danger in his home country. Mamadou made the decision to go to Canada after immigration officials came looking for him at his apartment without explanation.

Mamadou first attempted to enter Canada through an official border crossing.  After trying to claim refugee status, he was informed that because of the Safe Third Country Agreement, he was ineligible in Canada and his claim was rejected. The next night, Mamadou made the trek into Canada through waist-deep snow and -15-degree Celsius weather. His journey from New York into Quebec took ten hours and when found by police, he was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite. He is now living in Montreal and working with his lawyer to find a way for him to stay in Canada since he is no longer eligible to claim refugee status.

Examples like Mamadou’s illustrate a larger issue. Because of this agreement between Canada and the U.S., those who attempt to cross at official border points but first landed in the U.S. are unlikely to be granted asylum.  Crossing illegally actually increases a migrant’s chances of asylum in Canada.

Because the Safe Third Country agreement only applies to those crossing at official borders  the agreement does not apply to those that cross illegally. This way, refugees are able to claim asylum without the added criteria of the Safe Third Country agreement.

The Safe Third Country agreement has led to people crossing into Canada choosing to be arrested on the Canadian side of the border rather than stay on the American side. With the increase of people crossing over into Canada, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) have had an increased role in border control. At the particular crossing of Roxham Road in New York, the border is only 15 feet away from the end of the road. When people from the American side attempt to cross into Canada, RCMP officers actually inform them that if they cross, they will be arrested.  Instead of turning back, refugees accept their fate and walk across. Refugees are making often dangerous journeys to the Canadian border and are choosing to be arrested rather than stay in the United States.

Most refugees crossing irregularly, or not at an official entry point, are from African countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia. Many fear for their safety under the new American administration and are worried about deportation along with the danger they might be in their home country if that occurs. Both the travel ban and negative rhetoric around immigration have increased apprehension in the immigrant community.

This agreement between Canada and the US makes crossing into Canada more difficult and forces those attempting it into unsafe situations. It’s well-known that Canadian winters can be brutal and many on both sides of the border are worried that the journey from the US to Canada will prove fatal. There have been close calls already.

Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, originally from Ghana, decided to cross into Canada on December 24 of last year through Manitoba. After getting lost on the way, the men spent hours in temperatures close to minus 25 degrees Celsius. Their journey lasted around ten hours before they were helped by a passing truck driver. Their walk was so harrowing that both men had most of their fingers amputated due to frost bite and had to be treated in a special burn unit in Winnipeg. Their story illustrates the dangers that come with this journey – and they’re not alone. Many refugees suffer from hypothermia and frostbite when they cross, a combination that can prove fatal.

Human rights activists and government officials alike have been pressuring the Canadian government to take action. Small communities on the Canadian side of the border are feeling the added stress of people crossing and the risk of flooding in Manitoba has increased concern for asylum seekers. Both Canada and the United States are in a time of uncertainty. Experts cannot agree on whether or not warmer weather will lead to an increase in the number of refugees crossing into Canada. All agree that this new phenomenon is an issue, but agreeing on one solution has proven almost impossible. For the sake of those putting their lives in danger, something must be done.

Santana Briggs

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