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River deaths criticize US-Canada border deal


HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — The Canadian government is being forced to defend an agreement making it harder for asylum-seekers to cross between the United States and Canada after eight people died last week while attempting a border crossing by boat across the St. Lawrence River.

The deaths of the eight, including two young children with Canadian passports, have given credence to warnings from critics of the U.S.-Canada agreement that the deal would simply force asylum claimants to seek riskier and more remote ways to cross the frontier.

The deal, announced last month, amended the Safe Third Country Agreement, which has long permitted border authorities of either country to turn back asylum-seekers presenting themselves at official border crossings. Backers of the agreement argue that individuals facing a legitimate threat in their homelands should request asylum in the first safe country they arrive at.

But until now, asylum-seekers could not be turned back if they entered the other country between official border points, prompting tens of thousands of irregular crossings every year. A rural site on the border between New York state and Quebec, known as Roxham Road, saw 5,000 such crossings in a single month in January.

That route was shut down late last month with the announcement that the Safe Third Country Agreement would now apply to the entire 8,891-km border. The decision provided some relief to authorities charged with caring for the asylum-seekers in Quebec but angered supporters of liberal asylum laws in Canada.

The new rule creates severe obstacles for asylum-seekers, charged Al Parsai, an immigration services consultant in Toronto, where dozens of people protested outside the offices of the Canadian Public Safety Minister on Tuesday.

Asylum-seekers “will be sent back to the United States, where they could face deportation,” Parsai told VOA. “Of course, some may still have a chance in the U.S., but most will enter the realm of uncertainty.”

He predicted that with the new rule, many refugees who manage to cross into Canada surreptitiously will try to get as deep into the country as possible and then wait and apply for refugee status later.

“I’m not sure how practical their approach is, but it appears they try to move to Canada and probably stay there for a while and then file an inland refugee claim,” Parsai said. “We have to wait and see how this approach unfolds, though.”

Alex Neve, a University of Ottawa fellow and one of Canada’s top human rights scholars, told VOA the new regulation “is cruel and irresponsible, disregards international obligations, puts people at grave risk and, ultimately, is unworkable and unrealistic.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quoted earlier this week describing the deaths on the St. Lawrence as a “tragedy” but arguing that the new rule is needed to maintain public confidence in Canada’s immigration system.

“When people take risks to cross our borders in an irregular fashion or if they pay criminals to get them across the border, this isn’t a system we can have confidence in,” he said while speaking in French in Val-d’Or, Quebec, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

The amended U.S.-Canada agreement includes a promise by Canada to accept 15,000 refugees a year through “regular channels” from Central and South America, a provision seen as intended to help the U.S. administration with its backlog of migrants at its southern border.

However, it remains unclear how or from where those individuals will be able to apply for asylum, and in any case the provision is of little comfort to many of the migrants seeking to enter Canada who come from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

“The Trudeau government promised to create 15,000 more slots for migrants arriving from elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere,” said Idil Atak, an associate law professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.

“However, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board statistics, the majority of asylum-seekers who crossed the border irregularly between 2017 and 2023 were from non-Western Hemisphere countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Angola and Sudan,” she told VOA.

“The deal is discriminatory as it prevents many asylum-seekers from accessing international protection.”

Source: voanews

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