Refugees asking for asylum in Canada argue the US is no longer safe

The World
A man and a child peer out a window of a building. Next to them is a road sign that says "road closed"

Resty was desperate. She had fled Uganda and was in Pittsburgh when her toddler, Maria, got sick. They didn’t have insurance, and Resty felt hopeless. Then, while watching the news, she realized there was another option.

“I was seeing it on the news and internet,” says Resty. “And then I was like, ‘If those people can make it to Canada, I can too.’”

PRI is withholding Resty’s last name so she can speak without fear of affecting her chances at asylum.

Like many migrants, Resty gleaned the information she needed from news reports. They showed people crossing from the US into Canada, most often in Quebec, to avoid the official border crossings. That way they aren’t turned away under the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the US, which requires would-be refugees to apply for asylum in the country where they first arrive.

So Resty and her daughter took a took a cab, then a bus, to upstate New York, and walked across the border. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police placed them in a shelter. Eventually she and Maria were moved to a shelter in Montreal, where, Resty says, everyone was really nice. But everyone speaks French in that province, and Resty doesn’t.

“I couldn’t understand anything!” she remembers, laughing.

So Resty said ‘yes’ when an immigration officer asked if she’d like to move to a shelter in Toronto. Many in her position have made the same decision for the same reason, adding to the flow of asylum-seekers to the city. Toronto has taken the brunt of a migration spurred first by President Donald Trump’s candidacy and then continuing fears of his immigration policies.

A line of people with suitcases exit a bus
People gather with their luggage as they prepare to cross the US-Canada border into Canada in Champlain, New York, in Feb. 14, 2018. Since 2017, 33,000 people have crossed unofficially into Canada and made asylum claims.Chris Wattie/Reuters

‘They are trying to do the right thing’

Since 2017, 33,000 people have crossed unofficially into Canada and made asylum claims, like Resty. But the influx has declined from a peak in August 2017 of 5,712 asylee applicants. In July, there were just 1,634 claims made by people crossing between official borders.

That might be because of the Canadian government’s efforts to keep people away, sending representatives to the US and other countries to spread the word that it isn’t easy to get refugee status. And, after Canada saw an initial wave of Nigerian refugees, it asked the US to approve fewer Nigerian visas, so fewer people could come to the US and then head to Canada.

The decreasing numbers may also be due to increased enforcement in the US by ICE, and by US Border Patrol — which has jurisdiction within a hundred miles of the border.

A woman leans over a computer
Mariah Walker manages Vive, a shelter run by  Jericho Road Community Health Center, in Buffalo, New York. She helps clients prepare their cases for asylum in Canada.Rupa Shenoy/PRI

“A lot of people are picked up on the bus or train on the way here,” says Mariah Walker, manager of Vive, a shelter in Buffalo, New York, which helps people start the legal process for asylum in Canada. “They were literally on their way here and they were detained. They are trying to do the right thing.”

Walker says people are worried if they travel, they’ll be caught. She regularly sees officers at bus and train stations, asking for people’s status.

“But of course they’re only asking black and brown people, they’re not asking any white people,” Walker says.

Meanwhile, legal crossings are increasing. The number of people making asylum claims after coming legally through official border crossings has climbed from 1,245 in August 2017 to 2,570 in July.

Fabiola Vargas’ family was among them.

“It’s so different to be in a world where the US is like a horror film,’” she says in Spanish. “We went from one in Colombia, saw it happen in the US, and thank God for Canada.”

Four months ago, one of Vargas’ sons entered Canada in Montreal between legal borders. He started a refugee claim and was able to serve as a family connection that allowed Vargas, her husband, and another son’s family to come to Canada. They’re staying now at Casa Norte, in Fort Erie, Ontario, across the border from Buffalo, New York. Vargas’ undocumented daughter and her children remain in the States.

“I left my grandchildren there. I have one part of my heart here, one part there,” she says. “It’s completely different here than in the US. They don’t discriminate against us. I never thought to come to this county, but I am very grateful.”

Carmen Carbajal, another mother at Casa Norte, traveled north after learning that the Trump administration was separating parents and children in detention centers.

“It’s so painful to watch them separate parents from children,” she says in Spanish. “I’m the mother of two girls and I would prefer they kill me before they’re taken away.”

Carbajal and her husband fled gangs in El Salvador and lived in the US for two years before coming to Canada in late 2017.

“I believe everyone has a heart and has feelings,” she says. “I believe many, many of [Trump’s] followers will repent.”

Piles of trash bags are stacked in an office. In the distance, a woman is working on a computer.
Trash bags full of donated clothes pile up at Vive.Rupa Shenoy/PRI

‘… if that happens then everybody’s complicit’

Trump’s temporary family separation policy could have vast implications for Canada — because advocates say it undermines the Safe Third Country Agreement. The agreement is premised on the belief that both the US and Canada are safe countries for refugees, says University of Toronto criminology chair Audrey Macklin, a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, the body that decides who gets refugee status.

“If that premise ever held true — it is certainly arguable that it does not hold true anymore — that the United States is no longer a safe country for people to seek refugee protection,” she says.

So that raises the question if Canada can responsibly reject migrants and leave them in the hands of the US.

“That means that that country may in turn send them back to the country they’re fleeing without giving them a fair opportunity to make their refugee claim. And if that happens then everybody’s complicit,” Macklin says. “That really poses a question of how Canada can go on enforcing the agreement.”

That’s why groups like the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches are suing, saying the agreement should be suspended or even revoked. Canada or the US can do that, under the agreement, at any time. And if that happened, people won’t have to walk through woods and neighborhoods to cross unofficially into Canada, the way Resty did. People have died that way. Without the agreement, they could just go to regular official border crossings the normal safe way.

“If the concern is that Canada doesn’t want asylum-seekers at all, well, that’s a different kind of conversation,” Macklin says. “And if that’s what people are saying, well, that is simply contrary to Canada’s international legal obligations, our domestic political commitments and even our domestic law.”

‘Oh, this is really, really, really hard’

If the Safe Third Country Agreement were lifted, cities like Toronto might be inundated. As it is, Toronto’s leaders say the city’s in a housing crisis. This summer, it put refugees in college dorms and hotels. As of May, the city’s shelters housed 2,683 refugee claimants, making up nearly 41 percent of the shelter system. When Resty got to the place in Toronto where people in Montreal had told her to go, there was no room.

“They didn’t take us in,” she says. “And it was cold, I was stranded, I had no money, and I was like, ‘Oh this is really, really, really hard.’”

She started approaching people on the street. A woman took them in, gave them a place to sleep, and in the morning, gave Resty $50 and the address to the local Red Cross. Resty and Maria made their way there, then waited as a volunteer looked for a place they could stay.

“It wasn’t so long that she comes back after 10 minutes, she said ‘You’re so lucky, we have space for you and your child,’” Resty says.

They put Resty and Maria in a car that brought them to the FCJ Refugee Center, in a neighborhood just outside Toronto. Co-director Francisco Rico came to Canada 30 years ago as a refugee from El Salvador and helps educate people going through the process now. He says the average wait for a refugee hearing is now 20 months, and the backlog of cases is growing.

Rico says he and other advocates have been asking the city to put a refugee housing plan together for a year and officials haven’t done it.

“We have been facing this situation almost a year now, with these numbers, and there is no decision on how to handle it,” Rico says. “What the city of Toronto is trying to do is to force the federal government to take responsibility of the refugee claimants. They want to act like, ‘Oh my God, we need more money. Oh my God, we are in a crisis,’ when we are not in a crisis. We can handle it. So that’s the fight. And in the meantime refugee claimants — human beings — are middle of this.”

Rico says 2,700 refugees isn’t that many for a city of 3 million. And others agree.

“The number of irregular border crossers and indeed the number of asylum seekers in general in Canada is trivial in comparison to the number of refugees in frontline states in countries like Lebanon, where one in five people is Syrian,” says Audrey Macklin. “The only sense in which it’s not trivial is that it is a relative increase over the past. That alone is has become a tool for political opportunism to manufacture a crisis and to position in particular the conservative party for electoral purposes.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory, a member of the Progressive Conservative party, takes offense at the idea that he allowed a crisis to develop.

“That is a ridiculous suggestion and it’s insulting to the city of Toronto which has always taken a very compassionate and embracing approach to refugees,” he says.

Tory points out the city has expanded its shelter system a lot in the last few years. But he says the federal government needs to be a partner in a plan that starts when refugees come into the country. Tory says they should be sent cities that have housing and jobs. He’s tried to do a small-scale version of that himself, working with other mayors to move refugees in Toronto to surrounding municipalities.

“I’ve been devoting myself to working in partnership with the other governments to find better accommodation, so we do it together,” Tory says. “Because I strongly believe it should not be the city’s responsibility alone.”

The Canadian government did pitch in last month with $11 million dollars for Toronto’s refugee expenses. But that’s still less than the $64 million Toronto estimates it spent. But no matter how much it costs, or who pays, Resty trusts Canadians to do the right thing. She says people respect her in Canada, in ways she didn’t experience even at home.

“You find people ask you, ‘What do you want?’ Nobody can ask you that back in my country,” says Resty, who is still living in temporary housing while she awaits her refugee hearing. “Or, ‘Are you OK? Is this OK for you?’ Those are words I only get to listen to when I’m here.”

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