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Local concern for safety of migrants grows as Roxham Road is closed

“People are feeling sadness, frustration, anger, and betrayal. We are going through a whole grieving process now,” said Frances Ravensbergen of Bridges Not Borders, a Hemmingford-based organization that stands in solidarity with those who cross into Canada at Roxham Road. 

Last year, over 40,000 people crossed irregularly into Canada by walking the short, well-worn path between Canada and the United States at the end of Roxham Road. Around 5,000 people crossed in January alone this year. The unofficial point of entry, that has served for years as a beacon for asylum seekers, was closed abruptly at midnight on March 24.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had announced earlier in the day that Canada would now be applying the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) to asylum seekers who cross between official points of entry. A new sign was unveiled at the irregular crossing point, and police and border officials began to enforce the change overnight.

Standing there the following morning, Ravensbergen watched as people continued to cross into Canada at Roxham Road. She says that while she was there in solidarity, there was nothing she could say. “It left an awful feeling,” she admits, knowing that desperate asylum seekers will continue to cross in ever more dangerous ways.

Those who did continue to cross at Roxham Road in the days following its closure were arrested and taken to the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing, where their situation was assessed to see if they met any of the four exceptions to the STCA. Those with immediate family members with legal status in Canada, unaccompanied minors, those with Canadian visas or work permits, or those whose cases would be in the public’s interest could have their claims heard. Those who did not meet any of these exceptions were denied refugee protection and returned to U.S. customs officials.

As of March 29, the Roxham Road entry point was quiet. A pair of Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers confirmed there had been no crossings since earlier in the week. One officer said the site was now a location for informing those who are hoping to ask for asylum, as news spreads through the networks. He said those seeking asylum are being transported directly from Plattsburgh N.Y. to the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle border crossing, as there is no longer any point to arriving at Roxham Road.

Shocked and stranded

Ravensbergen says a significant concern is that those arriving at the border are not being made aware of the potential consequences. “If they are sent back, they can never apply for asylum in Canada again,” she explains, noting it will take some time for the word to get out, and in the meantime, migrants will likely continue to come. 

Wendy Ayotte, who is also a member of Bridges Not Borders, travelled to the Plattsburgh bus station on March 30 where she says people are continuing to arrive. She met with around 20 people, some who had been planning to cross at Roxham Road, and others who had already been denied entry into Canada. 

“People at the bus station were pretty stunned and shocked. Some were able to convey their deep distress, bewilderment, and anger at being refused by Canada, the country they saw as a secure place for them and, for most, their last port of call,” she reports. Many were without money and were trying to secure a place to stay and figure out their next steps. She says Bridges Not Borders paid for food and beverages for those waiting, as well as bus tickets for some. Ayotte helped to secure a hotel for others, with the help of the local department of social services. 

 

Image shows a gravel road with yellow barricades to right of road and what cement border post to left and large cement blocks in foreground. Snow partially covers the ground and trees in background have no leaves.
The once busy irregular border crossing at Roxham Road was quiet on March 29 following changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement that effectively closed the entry point into Canada PHOTO Sarah Rennie

 

“We had no way of knowing what was going to happen,” says Ayotte of the government’s decision to close Roxham Road. The news that Canadian and U.S. officials had agreed to the changes to the STCA up to a year ago, but kept silent to avoid a rush to the border, is especially frustrating. “We were not prepared for the rapidity. We thought we would have more time,” says Ayotte, who admits her time at the bus station was chaotic as she was quickly identified as someone who could help. 

“Nobody has taken charge as of yet,” she says, lamenting that neither the Canadian nor U.S. government seems to have invested any resources into helping migrants who are essentially now stranded. She says, going forward, Bridges Not Borders will continue to play an important role in advocating for migrants. Its website, which already gets a lot of hits, has been updated and will continue to serve as an information source for those looking to come to Canada. 

Sudden devastating change 

Tanya Aberman, a graduate of Chateauguay Valley Regional High School who went on to co-found the Sanctuary Students Solidarity and Support Collective (S4) in Toronto, has long worked on behalf of those with precarious status in Canada, including several individuals who have crossed at Roxham Road. She says people within the solidarity community are afraid of what this change to the STCA could mean for migrants. “People won’t stop coming, they are just going to find more dangerous routes,” she says. 

Aberman says she understands that the numbers crossing into Canada were creating a financial strain, “but the government is creating a much more violent and dangerous situation,” she says, suggesting people could now turn to smugglers, and will be forced underground – for at least 14 days – if they do cross before they are able to request asylum. “It is very cruel, and we don’t know what happens when they are turned back,” she says, noting she has heard horror stories about U.S. custom officials and of people being detained or deported before their situation is properly assessed. 

The sudden change to the rules is devastating, says Aberman, who notes the acceptance rate for refugee claims filed by those crossing at Roxham is quite high. “They are crossing because they are not allowed to cross anywhere else,” she explains. “These are people who are facing violence, facing danger, and facing persecution, who have no other way.” 

‘How we treat other people’

Evelyne Bouchard, who lives about two kilometres from Roxham Road in Hemmingford, says due to its geographic proximity to the border, people have crossed on her farm. She says it is not uncommon to see footprints in the woods or to find articles of clothing. It did not come as a surprise on March 25 when RCMP officers informed her they were searching the property for migrants who had crossed irregularly in the forest. Not long after, she saw a family of four, including two young children, being escorted to a waiting RCMP vehicle.

 “It made me take a step back and realize how much we have got used to this,” Bouchard says, suggesting this is not the first time she has witnessed an arrest in her driveway. “You want to help. You feel powerless. It’s not even clear what you are allowed to do.” She says it is particularly upsetting that this is all happening in a place that is so profoundly home to her and her family. “To see people suffering and struggling in that same space is really tough,” she admits. 

“Roxham drew attention to the geography here,” Bouchard exclaims. “And now, we just have the attention, without the safe passage.” She says that if there is any silver lining to the closure of Roxham Road, she is hopeful “it will galvanise an important conversation about who we are and how we treat other people.” 

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