Barutciski: Roxham Road — Canadians deserve honest talk about this country’s asylum policy

Needed on both sides of the spectrum:

Despite international travel restrictions, the number of asylum seekers entering Canada through the unofficial Roxham Road border crossing between Quebec and upstate New York has reached winter-month record levels. Recent statistics indicate 2,367 migrants entered during a month of January that was particularly cold. Almost 3,000 entered in December. At this rate, the RCMP will intercept a record number of asylum seekers on the land border this year.

We have not heard about these irregular migrants in recent years for a simple reason: after insisting during the first three years of the Trump administration that it was impossible to block the border, the Trudeau government simply invoked public health safety and prevented them from entering at the start of the pandemic. The special Order in Council preventing entry at Roxham Road was lifted last November and, unsurprisingly, the number of asylum claims immediately shot up.

We are back to the controversial double standard that created controversy and contributed to record levels of asylum claims from 2017 to 2019. If migrants arrive at the Lacolle port of entry, border officials invoke the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States to prevent them from entering to claim asylum. However, if the migrants go a couple of kilometres to the west at Roxham Road, the RCMP allows them to enter because of a loophole in the agreement. There is, however, no protection principle that could justify treating asylum seekers differently based on which part of the land border they use to enter.

Instead of explaining the problem in a transparent way so that pro-immigration Canadians could grasp the dilemma, the Trudeau government focused on signalling a supposedly virtuous policy and promoting a humanitarian brand. Observers who sympathized with this apparent openness are missing the underlying political cynicism. Canadian asylum policy has always been anchored to the basic concept of interdiction with strict visa issuance policies and airline sanctions for undocumented travellers. Despite the rhetoric, governments of all stripes have done everything possible to prevent asylum seekers from reaching our shores. It is not by chance that many migrants from poor countries obtained U.S. visas to fly to New York City before taking the bus/taxi to Roxham Road. They would never have received Canadian visas. Seen in this light, the recent decision to grant visas quickly to Ukrainians will eventually be seen as another double standard.

The ideological battle regarding Roxham Road is therefore misleading to the extent it has become a symbol dividing Canadians into supposedly pro-refugee or anti-refugee camps. Part of this context is that activists have opposed any idea of an agreement with the U.S. since the late 1980s (when enabling legislation was initially proposed) because they do not believe U.S. standards are good enough.

Despite its branding efforts, a closer look reveals the Trudeau government has always argued before the courts that migrants can be returned to the U.S. because it is a “safe third country” where rights are respected (under both the Trump and Biden administrations). So far it has not said this too loudly outside the courtroom because it clashes with a pro-refugee image.

Similarly, the Trudeau government does not explain what is meant by the commitment “to modernize” the agreement with the U.S. that is included in the immigration minister’s mandate letter. This would logically mean removing the loophole, but clearly saying so goes against brand.

Although unfashionable on campuses, there is nothing wrong with communicating to the public that border control is a legitimate state function. It explains why the federal government has always preferred to select and resettle refugees from overseas rather than deal with asylum claimants who arrive irregularly and undocumented. An honest discussion acknowledges potential problems with such uninvited asylum claims. The challenge is reconciling the need to control borders with a humane and fair approach to asylum.

Canada is not the only country facing asylum dilemmas. Even prior to the Ukrainian outflow, the number of asylum seekers increased over the last few months in the European Union. Likewise, the problem at the Mexican border is getting worse despite a new administration in Washington that does not want to appear anti-refugee. In a post-pandemic context that will see increased international mobility, Canadians have an interest in rejecting superficial image-based approaches to asylum policy. The government could improve public trust by eliminating the incoherence in the way asylum claims are handled at Roxham Road and being more upfront about our actual position. It is time our leaders’ role in elevating the public discourse overrides the fondness for political marketing.

Michael Barutciski is a faculty member of York University’s Glendon College and associate editor of Global Brief magazine. He has taught refugee law and directed public policy programs in several countries.

Source: Barutciski: Roxham Road — Canadians deserve honest talk about this country’s asylum policy

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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