Expansion of the Safe Third County Agreement Has Not Resulted in a Drop in the Number of Refugee Claimants - Now, They Fly Here

by Ronalee Carey Law

October 2023

     In March 2023, the governments of Canada and the USA agreed to amend the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement to have it apply across the entire shared border. Previously, it only applied to official ports of entry. This meant that unless an exception applied, an individual wanting to come to Canada to make a refugee claim had to cross the border by foot at an ‘irregular point of entry.’ Often, that irregular point of entry was near Roxham Road in Quebec.

    With the expansion of the agreement between Canada and the USA, refugee claimants crossing into Canada by foot are now immediately returned to the USA unless they evade detection for 14 days after arrival. At that point, they can make a refugee claim from within Canada. Refugee claimants are no longer entering through Roxham Road, and last month, the RCMP tore down the last remaining structure at the site, where thousands of individuals underwent security screenings and then commenced their refugee claims.

    However, the closure of Roxham Road and other informal points of entry into Canada did not stem the tide of refugees entering Canada. By August, media outlets were reporting a significant increase in refugee claims being processed at Canadian airports.  

    To get to Canada by air, individuals must either be exempt from requiring advance authorization (primarily US citizens), apply for an electronic travel authorization (available for citizens of certain countries such as Mexico), or obtain a visa to visit, work or study in Canada.

    Data obtained in October showed a marked change in the countries of origin of refugee claimants. When more claimants arrived by land, Turkey, Colombia, Haiti, Venezuela, and Afghanistan were the top source countries. Citizens from all of these countries need a visa to enter Canada. I have found the USA is more generous in issuing tourist visas than Canada. This is why US visa holders would first go to the USA and then enter Canada by land. In contrast, the data shows that since April, there has been a significant increase in claims from Mexicans, along with more claims from citizens of India, Kenya, Senegal and Nigeria.  The availability of an electronic travel authorization can explain the increase in claims from Mexicans. However, another factor may be at play for citizens of other countries.

      In February, IRCC introduced a Temporary public policy to facilitate the processing of temporary resident visa applications in inventory. This policy waived certain requirements for visa applications submitted before January 16, 2023, including the requirement to show proof of funds and that they would leave Canada at the end of their authorized stay. Taking out these two assessment factors lets IRCC officers more quickly process a backlog of applications developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The policy was not made public until late June 2023.

     Since this policy came into effect, media reports indicated that from January through September, 26,000 asylum claims were made at airports, a 54% increase in the total for the entirety of 2022. We see the impact at our office, where we field about 5 inquiries from asylum seekers daily.

     Despite these increases, Canada is still taking a disproportionately low number of the world’s refugees, comprising only two percent of asylum claims globally. Canada will continue to see a high number of refugee claims so long as global conditions, including the continued persecution of LGBTQI+ communities, cause people to flee their homes.