Raj: Ottawa should scrap the logistical and political nightmare that is the Safe Third Country Agreement

Interesting that while the government defends the STCA, a “senior” IRCC official is quoted as saying “in our estimation, it might not change that much, because what would happen is you wouldn’t have a Roxham Road, the people could cross at the ports of entry and they might therefore go to different ports of entry.”

Politically, of course, it appears to undermine the assertion that immigration is managed and controlled, a point that the Conservatives have hammered in the past before IRCC backlogs became a top issue:

It challenges our conception of who we are as a country, questions the values core to the Liberal Party of Canada and yet, Thursday, the federal government is expected to be at the Supreme Court defending a longstanding agreement with the United States that it should have ditched years ago.

The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) aims to reduce the number of refugees crossing into Canada from the United States. By blocking access to asylum seekers at official ports of entries, however, it encourages them to use a back door, known to most of us as Roxham Road. That loophole is becoming untenable politically, especially in Quebec, and it’s causing logistical nightmares and year-long delays in refugee processing that even the government’s own immigration department suggests could be alleviated if the deal was scrapped.

Under the STCA, asylum seekers arriving by land at official crossings are turned away and handed back to U.S. authorities, where they often end up in detention in questionable conditions — unless they fall in specific exemption categories (e.g. if they have family in Canada, are an unaccompanied minor, or face the death penalty in the U.S.).

That’s at the core of the case before the Supreme Court. Does handing asylum seekers back to the United States — where they are detained, reportedly in freezing conditions without proper food, where they have fewer chances of being accepted as a refugee, and can face persecution when returned to their homeland — breach the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? 

Refugee advocates say yes. The government says no. In fact, Ottawa has been unsuccessfully trying to get Washington to expand the STCA all across the border to address Canada’s current asylum crisis — a miniature one the Biden administration must envy.

The STCA came into effect in 2004, but it wasn’t until Donald Trump became president of the United States in 2017 and started deporting undocumented immigrants that people began to pay much attention. 

Eight days into Trump’s presidency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

It was on-brand for Trudeau and the Liberals who were elected two years earlier on a promise to bring in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing persecution.

The welcome mat was laid out at Roxham Road. This illegal border crossing is really a ditch at the Quebec-New York border that’s now surrounded by infrastructure to handle the thousands of people arriving there each month. It’s a well-publicized route to enter the country quickly and have your case heard (not so quickly) with the tiny wrinkle that you must break the law (in a consequence-free manner) to cross into Canada.

There are no statistics for RCMP interceptions of asylum claimants on the government’s website prior to 2017. But that year, the numbers in Quebec jumped from 245 in January to 1,916 in December. In total, 18,836 persons were apprehended crossing the border irregularly into Quebec. That yearly trend continued up until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Roxham Road and the Canada-U.S. border in 2020 and asylum seekers were told to wait to make their claims. In December 2021, the numbers were back up and so far this year, 23,196 irregular migrants have been intercepted at the Quebec border — more than any other year. Perhaps, it’s pent-up demand from the pandemic, or perhaps it’s just the new normal settling in.

It’s no wonder Quebec politicians are alarmed. Coupled with Premier François Legault’s focus on identity politics and concerns over the survival of the French language, provincial politicians fervently denounced the situation on the election trail, demanding the road be closed.

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, for example, suggested the federal government left Roxham Road open purposefully to “destabilize” Quebec society. 

Ottawa is uninterested in closing Roxham Road. It argues blocking access would lead asylum seekers to more dangerous crossings and could line the pockets of organized crime. Making it an official crossing would have the same impact — and is unlikely since the U.S. would have to agree to place agents there. (Imposing the STCA on the entire border would also lead migrants to find underground routes, but I digress.)

Instead, an official in Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office said the situation is “difficult, but it’s also not unmanageable.”

Right now, the system is breaking down. It gives the appearance of queue-jumping (it’s not), but does reward for circumventing the law. It’s also costing Ottawa hundreds of millions of dollars — so far more than $761 million in accommodation, security, health and transportation costs. It’s squeezing Quebec’s resources too, and a lack of personnel is forcing asylum seekers to wait nearly a year or more before obtaining a work permit and many years before having their cases heard. 

In court, the federal government has argued scrapping the STCA would lead to a flood of asylum claims at Canada’s official ports of entry. 

But a senior official from Immigration and Citizenship, speaking to the Star Wednesday, said that while Ottawa is contingency planning in case that happens, “in our estimation, it might not change that much, because what would happen is you wouldn’t have a Roxham Road, the people could cross at the ports of entry and they might therefore go to different ports of entry.”

In fact, suspending the STCA might relieve the bottleneck at the Quebec crossing and spread the burden of supporting asylum seekers across provinces.

“It might help a bit,” the official said, noting that bringing Roxham Road migrants who intended to go to Ontario to that province had helped them get their interviews faster.

Of course, scrapping the deal won’t solve everything. “The numbers are such that even if they were spread across the country, it would still lead to some problems,” the official noted.

Canadians have shown themselves ready to do more to respond to refugee crises around the world. But the system must be seen to be fair. People must be processed quickly, and given the tools to help them support themselves.

In the meantime, if the government’s own department doesn’t believe there is pent-up demand beyond what we’re already seeing, why is the Liberal government insisting on defending the status quo?

Source: Ottawa should scrap the logistical and political nightmare that is the Safe Third Country Agreement

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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