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Erin O’Toole recycles a Scheer-era false claim: No, thousands of asylum seekers haven’t crossed ‘illegally’ at Roxham Road

Erin O’Toole recycles a Scheer-era false claim: No, thousands of asylum seekers haven’t crossed ‘illegally’ at Roxham Road
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In a French Monday with the caption “A conservative government will close the border at Roxham Road, once and for all,” Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said: “With Justin Trudeau, thousands of people crossed the border illegally. This system is unjust for the families that follow the rules and wait their turn.”

Not only is it wrong to say migrants crossing at Roxham Road in southern Quebec are doing so illegally, migration experts say, O’Toole’s statement — which recycles a similarly false claim made by former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in 2019 — also promotes “harmful anti-refugee myths” by falsely equating Canada’s immigration and refugee systems.

“It is not illegal in Canadian law to cross the Canada-U. S. border for the purpose of seeking refugee protection,” said Maureen Silcoff, Canadian refugee and immigration lawyer and past president of Canadian Association Refugee Lawyers. Canada’s participation in the 1951 Refugee Convention means we’re legally obligated to “allow people who arrive at (the) border to have an opportunity to put forward their protection needs and to assess those needs,” she added.

The 1951 Convention was signed in the aftermath of World War II to codify the rights of refugees after countries like Canada turned away Jewish refugees facing persecution, said Craig Damian Smith, Canada excellence research chair in migration and integration at X University, the name adopted by some staff and students ahead of Ryerson University’s renaming. The Convention bars states from penalizing refugees that come to their countries from a territory where their life or freedom is under threat, so long as they present themselves to authorities, which migrants at Roxham Road are doing.

“I’m proposing a welcoming country that respects its borders,” O’Toole goes on to say in the video, adding: “All immigrants can settle in Quebec, in Canada, to work, to study, or to start a family, but in a legal way that respects the laws of the country they want to immigrate to.”

“That’s perfectly lawful,” Silcoff said.

O’Toole is promising to “protect our borders” and “end illegal crossings” by upholding Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. The bilateral agreement, established in 2004, is designed to prevent “asylum shopping” by requiring migrants to claim asylum in the first safe country they land.

The agreement has come under fire over conditions in U.S. detention camps and amid American crackdowns on immigration, raising the question of whether the U.S. truly is a safe landing place for refugees.

Since 2016, tens of thousands of asylum seekers have entered Canada at Roxham Road, an unofficial land crossing point between New York and Quebec which is not covered by the Safe Third Country Agreement. In response, Canada built a “de facto humanitarian port of entry” to handle and process the asylum seekers, Smith explained.

Between 2016 and 2019, most migrants crossing Roxham Road were transiting through the U.S. from elsewhere, while some were already residing in the U.S. but had precarious immigration statuses there, Smith said. Canada also saw an uptick in asylum claims as a result of changes to U.S. immigration policies under Donald Trump.

Last July, Canada’s Federal Court rules the Safe Third Country Agreement violated Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms by exposing asylum seekers to “physical and psychological suffering” in migrant-detention facilities in the U.S. The decision effectively declared America unsafe for refugees.

The federal government appealed the judgment, and the Federal Court of Appeal, deciding that the detention of refugee claimants didn’t violate the charter.
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