Canada’s contribution to protecting the world’s refugees is undeniable. Through its resettlement programmes and, more generally, its promotion of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR), Canada has demonstrated a firm commitment to the goals and principles enshrined in the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees. However, the recent events at Rohxam Road—where significant numbers of asylum seekers crossed the US-Canada border until its closure in March 2023—have highlighted on-going issues with regard to Canada’s approach to international protection. Whilst the country is amenable to welcoming refugees so long as they can be selected in an orderly manner, Canada proves more reluctant to accept spontaneous applications of people crossing the border without being invited. This blog post explores the tension between two the faces of asylum policy in Canada—orderly resettlement vs. spontaneous asylum applications—in the light of the irregular crossings at Roxham Road over the past few years.
A reluctance to admit spontaneous applications at the border
The recent contention around Roxham Road is not a new phenomenon. Vivid public debate had already emerged with soaring irregular crossings in 2016-2017. Most notably, Francois Legault, then leader of Coalition Avenir Québec, had called for tightened border controls and stricter asylum rules. While the number of irregular crossings collapsed because of COVID-19-induced border closures, it surged again with the reopening of borders in November 2021, raising renewed controversies in the political sphere. The same Francois Legault, now Québec’s Premier, voiced his concerns about the pressure the influx of people was to exert on the province’s social services. In February 2023, he called for the Federal Government to close Roxham Road and renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the US.
Under the bilateral STCA passed by the US and Canada in 2002, asylum claimants are required to apply for refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in. With the US and Canada recognizing each other as displaying comparable levels of safety for refugees, they are each entitled to return claimants to the country whose border was crossed first. In its initial form, however, the agreement only applied to those asylum seekers whose claim had been lodged at official border points, thus excluding asylum seekers crossing anywhere else along the almost 8,900-kilometer border. The renegotiation of the SFCA over the past year led to the adoption, in March 2023, of an additional protocol which expands the treaty’s application to entries at unofficial border points (i.e. irregular entries such as those at Roxham Road).
Whilst this may have responded to the demands of political opponents , it sparked vivid opposition from human rights defenders, such as the Canadian Council for Refugees and some 130 Civil Society Organizations. These organizations pointed out the existence of significant differences in matters of human rights standards between the US and Canada; differences that were upheld by the Canadian Federal Court.
Have asylum and migration become commodities in Canadian politics?
The renegotiation of the US-Canada STCA to allow the return of asylum seekers to the US feels out of tune with Canada’s commitment to resettling recognized refugees in the country. Returning asylum seekers to the US is tantamount to exposing them to lesser human rights standards, notably with regard to detention, thus standing in clear contrast with the country’s commitment to international protection. The question thus arises: why has the Canadian government sought to renegotiate the STCA with the US? In connection with it, one might ask whether asylum, and perhaps even immigration, have become political commodities, as the reactions from Legault, but also the actions from the Trudeau government, seem to suggest. Most notably, immigration in Quebec—a province in which Trudeau’s Liberal party has lost hold over the last ten years—has attracted quite some political debate over the years.
Unlike most of the Western world, immigration is a non-issue in Canada. Asylum tends to follow a similar trend, albeit the two should remain distinct for analytical purposes. Immigration (this goes for asylum too) lacks saliency in Canadian public opinion to be a politicized issue: about 2% of Canadian citizens routinely regards it as an important issue, as recurrently shown in Environics polls. In addition, citizens tend to support further immigration as a factor of economic growth, although said support fluctuates over time. Recent cross-section data from the Canadian Election Study and from Democracy Checkup (accessible on Odesi) shows that in 2019, 42.6% of the population thought Canada should admit fewer immigrants, a figure that decreases to 27.2% in 2022.
When it comes to refugees, however, past research has shown that the opinion is more critical and sees new influxes as a burden for the welfare state. Bearing witness to the phenomenon is the increased politicization of refugee matters in the 2015 Federal election, in which Canada’s response to displacement from Syria took central importance. Recent data nonetheless show a more nuanced picture: the trend follows that of support for immigration, with however higher levels of respondents thinking the country should admit fewer refugees.
Comparing the timeline of attitudes to immigration and refugees to the timeline of irregular crossings at Roxham Road suggests that the two dynamics may not be correlated. Unfortunately, data on attitudes to immigration and asylum remains scarce, which hinders in-depth analysis. Likewise, the lack of data does not allow a clear answer to the political commodity question, this for at least two reasons. First, it is unclear how the public views the crossings at Roxham Road. Are they construed as refugee flows, as asylum seekers “jumping the queue”, or as irregular migrants? Second, while it seems clear that the support for admission of refugees mentioned above concerns resettlement of already recognized refugees, there is no data on the public’s attitudes to recognizing protection to asylum seekers lodging their claim in Canada. Yet, like all states signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention, Canada has a system in place to receive and process asylum claims lodged in its territory. What is clear, however, is that the limited salience of the issue of immigration/asylum (across the country, Quebec included) bears little potential for politicization and polarization in Canada, thus undermining the validity of the political commodity hypothesis. It remains that the tension between domestic policy and the government’s stance on the international stage cast doubts on the ability of Canada to maintain its global leadership in international protection matters.