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Canada Debates Closing Refugee Road

This aerial view shows migrants from Venezuela, Nigeria, Haiti and other countries arriving at the Roxham Road border crossing in Roxham, Quebec, on March 3, 2023.
This aerial view shows migrants from Venezuela, Nigeria, Haiti and other countries arriving at the Roxham Road border crossing in Roxham, Quebec, on March 3, 2023.

A once quiet border road between the United States and Canada along a stretch of sparsely populated farmland has become the focal point of a domestic argument over national immigration policy.

Roxham Road, running between the northern U.S. state of New York and the Canadian province of Quebec, has become the most heavily used street by migrants hoping to move to Canada from the U.S.

On February 21, the Conservative Party of Canada’s leader Pierre Poilievre called for the road to be closed.

The solution, said Alex Neve, a University of Ottawa fellow and one of Canada’s top human rights scholars, is not to close a single road but to enact policy changes that will spread immigration across the U.S.-Canada border instead of focusing it around the small communities along Roxham Road and in the province of Quebec.

Critics of the policy that has brought large numbers of refugees to Roxham Road seem to think the road “should be shut down and that would be the end of everything, which is unrealistic in light of how long the Canada-U.S. border is,” Neve told VOA.

This is “very problematic when it comes to human rights and refugee protection,” he added.

Roxham Road becomes popular

Neve argues that changes need to be made to the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The agreement, which came into force in 2004, requires those seeking refugee protection to request it in the first safe country they arrive in, unless they qualify for an exception to the agreement.

However, refugees can get around the agreement, said Laurie Trautman, an expert with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Roxham Road became a popular place of entry, she said, because it is not an official port of entry and the Safe Third Country Agreement only applies to official ports of entry.

It is also considered safer during extreme winter temperatures than numerous crossings along the 8,900-kilometer (5,525-mile) U.S.-Canada border.

However, its popularity with refugees has prompted the Canadian Border Services Agency to set up an unofficial presence on the border.

The makeshift checkpoint created by CBSA is specifically to process the refugees of Roxham Road and that means the Roxham Road crossing evades the Safe Third Country Agreement rules.

Once there, the migrants are arrested and charged with unlawful entry and then released into Canada.

PM backs renegotiating agreement

According to government statistics, more than 39,000 people sought asylum in Quebec in 2022 after crossing into Canada outside an official port of entry, compared with 369 people across the rest of the entire border.

Neve, the human rights scholar, said overturning the Safe Third Country Agreement is the answer to preventing a concentration of refugees on Roxham Road and in the province of Quebec.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to agree.

"The only way to effectively shut down not just Roxham Road, but the entire border to these irregular crossings, is to renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement, which is a serious work that we are doing as a government right now," Trudeau said Wednesday, according to the CBC.

U.S. President Joe Biden is planning a trip to Ottawa this month. Trudeau said he plans to use that meeting to renegotiate the agreement.