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Flows from US to Canada, Refugee Migration over the Canada-U.S. Border

Highlight the presence of flows from the US to Canada with Ms. Ellis
© Claire Ellis

The following text has been written by Claire Ellis, CERC in Migration and Integration, Ryerson University, CA.

Sharing the world’s longest land border, it is no surprise that a central feature of Canadian immigration and refugee policy is its relationship with the United States.

The history of the Canadian-US border reveals a long-standing effort to maintain a cooperative relationship and integrated policy approach. The increasingly integrated space of border enforcement between the two states has grown to include bilateral agreements – such as the Safe Third Country Agreement information sharing of passenger, visa application, and biometric data, and has increased the jurisdiction of US border agents to conduct screening checks on Canadian soil. For refugee claimants, in particular, the migration journey across the Canada-U.S border has become an increasingly restrictive, and at times dangerous, terrain.

On December 24th, 2016, two men were found along a highway in Manitoba close to the Canada-United States border after walking for several hours in below-freezing temperatures. Originally from Ghana but living in the United States, Mr. Mohammed and Mr. Iyal had lost their way while walking through snowy fields to cross the border into Canada to make claims for refugee protection. By the time a trucker found them, they were dangerously cold and suffering from frostbite, later resulting in the amputation of nearly all of their fingers. In the end, both men were granted refugee protection in Canada. While their story made headlines, their journey is not unique. According to statistics from the Government of Canada, over 55,000 people were intercepted crossing at non-official border points into Canada between 2017 and 2020 to make claims for refugee protection. Canada is a refugee-receiving country with an established refugee protection system, so why do people like Mr. Mohammed and Mr. Iyal decide to make the arduous journey and cross the border irregularly rather than make a claim for protection at an official port of entry?

The answer lies in a bilateral agreement between Canada and the United States currently in place that would have restricted their access to Canada’s refugee system: the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). The STCA, which was signed in 2002 and came into force in 2004, regulates that refugee claimants must apply for refugee protection in the first country (Canada or the United States) they arrive in, with exceptions relating to family unification, unaccompanied minors, visa/permit holders and claimants with death sentence convictions. However, a significant loophole of the STCA is that it only applies to refugee claimants who make a claim at an official port of entry. If a refugee claimant walks across the border into Canada at a non-official entry point, the agreement does not apply, and they are free to make a claim for protection in Canada.

The stated objective for the STCA is to facilitate the orderly handling of refugee claims and address the pressures of global migration facing asylum systems in developed countries. Yet there have been ongoing calls and court challenges from refugee advocates, practitioners, and members of government to suspend or remove the STCA in light of its humanitarian concerns. When safe and legal migration routes for migrants and refugees are closed or made extremely selective, the routes shift elsewhere, often towards clandestine travel and smuggling actors.

Refugee advocates argue that the STCA continues to endanger the lives of those seeking protection by forcing them to enter the country through unauthorized points of entry to avoid restrictions, often during extreme weather conditions. Further, it is maintained that the United States is not an equally safe place for refugees. One example is the United States’ approach to gender-based claims of persecution. Although not a formal component of the Refugee Convention, Canada accepts gender-based refugee claims through established guidelines, while the United States has failed to ensure proper ongoing recognition of gender-based persecution as a legitimate claim for refugee protection.

Perhaps the most widely known changes to the U.S. immigration policy have been the harsh reforms enacted by the Trump Administration beginning in 2017, such as removing the temporary protected status of migrants from countries such as El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, and Sudan, and establishing state-led separations of migrant parents and children at the Mexican-United States border. A Harvard Law School report declared that the highly discriminatory executive orders introduced by the Trump Administration resulted in the United States no longer being a safe country of asylum. While the direct impact of the Trump Administration policies on overall rates of refugee migration to Canada is unclear, there has been a significant acceleration of asylum claims from those crossing irregularly into Canada in the wake of the reforms.

The drivers of refugee migration over the Canada- U.S. border are multi-faceted, including desires to reunite with family in Canada, restrictive U.S immigration policies, including threats of detention and deportation, and personal aspirations to live and work in Canada. Despite barriers that route people to cross irregularly, often in unsafe conditions, to make a claim for asylum, the higher rates of crossings indicate that the seemingly reciprocal relationship between Canada and the U.S. to accept asylum claims is not shared by those navigating the systems in search of safe ground.

© Claire Ellis
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