The United States and Canada have reportedly reached an agreement that will allow border officials to turn back asylum seekers heading north across their shared border without considering their asylum claims, sparking an outcry from immigrant groups.
US and Canadian media reported the interim agreement on Thursday as US President Joe Biden visits the Canadian capital of Ottawa in his first official visit to the country since taking office in early 2021.
Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to confirm the agreement on Friday.
In a press release, the Canadian Migrant Rights Network condemned the move, calling it “unprincipled and dangerous” and saying it would “force migrants to take even more dangerous routes” as they seek refuge.
Immigrant rights groups have accused both leaders of failing to fulfill their commitments to asylum seekers, while the US and Canada have pledged more restrictive measures to return refugees amid attacks from conservative politicians.
The reported agreement expands the policy known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). The agreement claims that the US and Canada are safe countries for refugees and that refugees must apply for asylum in whichever country they arrive first.
Under the policy, Canada can turn away asylum seekers at official ports of entry along the US border without considering their claims.
However, people would still be able to apply for asylum if they arrived on Canadian soil. About 39,000 people entered Canada last year through unofficial crossings such as Roxham Road, a dirt road between the US state of New York and the Canadian province of Quebec, which has become a symbol of the debate over the country’s immigration policy.
Conservative politicians like Pierre Poilievre have badgered Trudeau over the issue, characterizing the prime minister as unwilling to crack down on irregular migration and calling on the government to close Roxham Road.
In an op-ed in Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper last month, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said the province’s capacity to house newly arrived asylum seekers is “greatly exceeded” and called on the Trudeau government to rewrite the STCA.
In response to inquiries from Al Jazeera, Trudeau’s office said it could not confirm Thursday’s media reports and did not respond to questions regarding criticism from refugee rights groups.
The agreement, which was first signed in 2002 and has been in effect since 2004, has been controversial since its inception, and rights groups in Canada have petitioned for the policy to be relaxed or abolished altogether. Instead, the Trudeau administration has sought to defend — and now expand — its use.
In the meantime, the government transferred asylum seekers from Quebec to other provinces to spread the challenges more evenly.
PUBLICATION: We condemn “unprincipled and dangerous” closure of Roxham Road, call for PM @JustinTrudeau to ensure safe access, equal rights and #StatusZaSve Migrants
— Migrant Rights Network #StatusforAll (@MigrantRightsCA) March 23, 2023
Experts say such actions can only offer relief in the short term and that Canada should be expanding the ability of refugees to seek asylum in a safe and orderly manner, rather than cracking down on irregular border crossings.
“It is completely impractical to try to close the border. If you close Roxham Road, others will simply appear elsewhere,” refugee lawyer Maureen Silcoff told Al Jazeera in a recent telephone conversation.
“The STCA itself is pushing people into places like Roxham Road because they can’t claim asylum at official ports of entry.”
When asylum-seeking options are limited, she added, people are rarely deterred. Instead, she pointed out, they are looking for more remote places where they can enter the country, even if it means accepting greater risks.
“If they follow the path of greater restrictions,” Silcoff said, “people will die.”
The STCA has also faced persistent legal challenges and has twice been overturned by the courts. Appeals courts have twice upheld the policy, which is now being considered by the Supreme Court of Canada, where advocacy groups hope it will be struck down as unconstitutional.
Such groups have also questioned the premise that the US is a safe destination for refugees amid reports of poor conditions in US immigration detention centers.
“Canada has an international reputation as a country with a history of helping refugees,” said Jamie Liew, an immigration expert at the University of Ottawa.
“We have a system for determining refugee claims that is considered the gold standard. Why not let it work? If we opened our official ports of entry, people would be able to cross freely and with dignity.”
Experts also note that the tide of people fleeing desperate circumstances is unlikely to subside anytime soon, especially as climate change fuels displacement, particularly in poorer countries.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 100 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2022.
The year before, almost 5 million people left their countries seeking asylum.
“What Canada is facing is the last straw compared to other countries,” Liew said. “We have an obligation to allow people to apply for asylum.”