The Other Side of Roxham Road: Canada Grapples With Border Refugees

Dec 5, 2017

Washington D.C. has ended a temporary residency program for almost 60,000 Haitians allowed to legally enter the United States following an earthquake in 2010. The affected Haitians will have to leave the U.S. by 2019. The program has also been revoked for 2,000 Nicaraguans and it's unclear if other groups, including 300,000 Salvadorans, will be allowed to remain.

The net result is a continued flow of people crossing the border into Canada by foot. They are taking advantage of a footnote in a Canada-U.S. treaty that says foot crossers won't be turned back from Canada until their case is heard.

MORE — Immigration Tribunals Stressed As Refugee Applicants Arrive In Canada On Foot

After cresting this past summer, the story continues to unfold at places like Roxham Road, north of Champlain in upstate New York. The United States Border Patrol in Swanton, says illegal crossings on foot into Canada are also taking place in Vermont. Only now, before they cross on foot, people like Mansour, a 37-year-old engineer from Yemen, are met by a group of women, Canadians and Americans, that includes Janet McFetridge of Champlain.

"Do you need any warm socks?" McFetridge asked Mansour.

"No I have some in my luggage. Thank you. God bless you," he replied.

Mansour then gazed for an instant at the border. He said he'd traveled for two days from North Carolina to reach the northern border. His eyes were sullen, his expression gloomy and he moved slowly. He said his U.S. work visa is scheduled to expire in two months. He said he can't contemplate the risk of returning to war-torn Yemen.

"[There is] suffering and it is an unsafe place," he said.

Mansour started walking slowly but deliberately on the final steps to the border with Canada. Canadian police tried to stop him and a family of five Nigerians.

"This is Canada, right? If you cross the line here, you'll be arrested for illegal entry," the officer stated from the Canadian side. "Do you understand?"

The group said they did. They then crossed and were arrested.

A man from Congo speaks with RCMP officers after illegally entering Canada. The man from Congo was then frisked before being processed in the white trailer.
Credit Lorne Matalon / For VPR

A spokesman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said crossings take place on daily basis. A few minutes later, a Haitian man stepped out of taxi that brought him from the bus station in Plattsburgh. There is large Haitian community in Montréal and he has friends there, he said. I asked him about conditions in his country.

"Very difficult," he replied. He said Haiti hasn't nearly recovered from the earthquake, and the country's plagued by large-scale floods, the most recent in November.

"My life, I almost lose my life. So I look for a place to go," he said.

More than 9,000 people seeking refugee status entered the province of Quebec alone between August and Nov. 1, 2017. By comparison, just over 2,400 crossed by foot into all of Canada in 2016 - something Janet McFetridge sees every day.

"I'm just overwhelmed by the numbers that are going through in little community up here in Champlain," said McFetridge.

People are crossing here and in Vermont because of a curious legal paradox known as the Safe Third Country Agreement. It's a treaty with the U.S. that says if you make a claim for refugee status at a legal border crossing into Canada, you'll be sent back because the U.S. is considered safe for refugees. But if you can somehow cross into Canada illegally, the treaty doesn't apply and you can remain in Canada while your case is decided, a process that can take years.

Aug. 15, 2017: Hundreds Of Asylum-Seekers Continue To Stream Into Quebec

"I'm not sure that going to Canada is the best decision for all of them,"said McFetridge. But I just think it's very, very unfortunate that people are leaving our country to go into a future [with] certainly no guarantees. And many of them are going to be deported into terrible situations. I just wish we could help them more here."

Janet McFetridge from Champlain, New York, left, Wendy Ayotte, center, from Havelock, Quebec and Heather Deans of Champlain await the arrival of refugees. The trio brings a basket filled with scarves, socks and hats to offer people crossing illegally into Canada.
Credit Lorne Matalon / For VPR

Canada has increased deportations of would-be refugees this year. McFetridge hands out gloves and hats with her friend Wendy Ayotte from Havelock, Quebec, a village of 750 people on the Canadian side of border. Ayotte is unwavering in her opposition to the Safe Third Country Agreement.

"We want the Safe Third Country suspended or annulled altogether because we don't think the States are safe for refugees anymore," Ayotte stated.

She is not alone. Calls in Canada to cancel the agreement are growing. More than 200 lawyers along with law students have been gathering evidence to mount a legal case against it. Amnesty International has also called for an end to the treaty.

As of October 2017, UN peacekeepers have withdrawn from Haiti. They were there to stabilize the country, the western hemisphere's poorest nation. Right: In Haiti, people line up to apply for visas to the United States.
Credit Lorne Matalon / For VPR

"I think we are all shocked by the numbers," said Eric Taillefer, a member of the Quebec Association of Immigration Lawyers.

In his office in Montréal, Taillefer said allowing refugees to apply at a legal crossing would allow Canada to focus more on security, because presumably someone with, for example, links terrorism would not consider a legal crossing.

"Then if you cross in somewhere else, we could ask the question. 'Why did you cross this way? Are you a security risk?'"

SLIDESHOW: See more photos from Lorne Matalon's reporting

On the border at Roxham Road, a man from Burundi told an RCMP officer that he can't return to the African nation.

"They going to kill us over there," he said in a voice raised so that the officer could hear him clearly.

Even after crossing, the process of getting admitted permanently to Canada is uncertain at best. People keep coming illegally, however, because while their claim for refugee status proceeds, they know they will at least be safe.

Lorne Matalon is the 2016-2017 Journalism Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin and a Vermont resident. He is currently a contributor to CBC Radio and files regularly for Marketplace. Matalon has reported from Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Panama and multiple locations in Mexico. Matalon's series on killings and land displacement driven by energy development in borderland Mexico was awarded a 2016 National Edward R Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting.