Misinformation and hostile U.S. refugee policies are the main drivers behind the influx of so-called irregular migrants crossing into Canada, according to asylum seekers who participated in a groundbreaking survey.
The research project involving 290 irregular migrants also found few turned to human smugglers to reach the border, a sign of Canada’s orderly border management — and a vindication of Ottawa’s response to the border crisis that saw 50,000 asylum seekers enter the country through land crossings over the past two years, says the joint report by the University of Toronto and York University.
The surge — which slowed down this year — was a hot political issue on Parliament Hill, dividing ordinary Canadians and fuelling the far-right movement, which seized the opportunity to fan anti-immigrant sentiments.
“Canada’s response has been the right response, by increasing the capacity of the Immigration and Refugee Board and reducing misinformation through outreach campaigns,” said study author Craig Damian Smith, associate director of the Global Migration Lab at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and research associate at York’s Centre for Refugee Studies.
“The RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency conduct routinized security screening. You don’t have people trafficked. You don’t see the cat-and-mouse game. People arrive safely, and without criminal networks.”
Researchers surveyed asylum seekers from more than 50 countries as part of the study released this month — the first on this wave of irregular migration. The participants had been in Canada anywhere from a few days to two years and took part in hour-long interviews conducted at shelters and community organizations in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Montreal in their language of choice.
Although irregular migration via Quebec’s Roxham Rd. is not new, the route gained notoriety through social media and international media after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in late 2016 and rolled out hostile policies toward immigrants and refugees.
Irregular migrants cross at Roxham Rd. in order to skirt the asylum restrictions under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement that requires individuals to seek asylum in the first of the two countries entered. However, people are allowed to file refugee claims if they cross between official ports of entry.
Participants in the study were recruited through posters, social workers and volunteers. They said they learned of Roxham Rd. through social media, YouTube or word of mouth.
The survey found that roughly 60 per cent of respondents used the U.S. as a transit state, spending an average of only five days there, with the goal to come to Canada from the outset; the rest had lived south of the border for years, mostly undocumented after overstaying a visa or getting a negative asylum decision.
Some 20 per cent had been denied visitor or skilled immigrant visas to Canada, but were able to obtain or already had U.S. visitor visas.
Calling Roxham Rd. “well-managed,” Smith said irregular migrants who transited through the U.S. after a brief stay often were looking for immigration opportunities such as some of the Sudanese, Yemeni, Palestinians and Indians who had spent a long time in Saudi Arabia, but faced being ousted in the midst of an economic downturn and push for “Saudization” of the workforce in the kingdom.
“Canada is welcoming and open to immigration, but it also has very strict visa requirements. It’s just not easy for them to come here,” said Smith, adding it’s easier to go to the U.S., but the Trump administration is hostile to migrants.
He said the election of Trump was a huge factor driving long-time undocumented migrants in the U.S. to the border.
A Rwandan man, who had lived in Michigan for 25 years after a failed asylum claim, told researchers he left behind his three U.S.-born children when he came to Canada after American authorities started making arrests of undocumented migrants in his neighbourhood. He left home after he attended his daughter’s university graduation.
A woman from Chad, who had lived in New Jersey for 15 years, said she fled an abusive relationship after her partner reported her to immigration and customs enforcement officials.
Smith said social networks play a strong role in would-be migrants’ decision-making. Nigerian claimants, for example, relied on Pentecostal churches to plan travel and social connections once in Canada. Those from Yemen, Colombia and Africa received detailed instructions from community members who had already arrived. Others said U.S. aid organizations encouraged people to move on to Canada after being released from detention.
“They had detailed understanding on how to get to the border, but little understanding of what the asylum process is once they are in Canada,” noted Smith.
The survey found that the journey of these migrants typically consists of transit by bus or car to Plattsburgh, N.Y., and taxi companies transporting people to Roxham Rd., with no involvement of smugglers.
However, the migrants face the most significant exploitation by unscrupulous immigration consultants, the report said. These consultants offer a “full-service” fee, including transportation to the border, access to a safe house in Canada (which is unnecessary) and promises to circumvent asylum wait times (which is not possible).
“The agent charged us $1,500 and put us in touch with a lawyer in Canada, (who) said it was $6,000, then $1,500 each to get a work permit. He said he could get us work and we could pay him back,” Nadya, a 35-year-old woman from Colombia, told researchers.
“Once we got to Montreal, there was a group of Latino lawyers, who explained we would get free legal aid. We asked, ‘How much do we have to pay for a work permit?’ It’s then we realized he was trying to take advantage of us.”
Despite calls by right-leaning critics to impose an asylum ban on anyone who crosses the land border and by left-leaning advocates to entirely cancel the Safe Third Country Agreement because the U.S. is not safe for refugees, Smith concluded the status quo is still “a viable option.”