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Where Two Dead Ends Meet: Finding Safe Passage at Roxham Road

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A family approaches RCMP officers at the border / Image © MilesAstray
June 12, 2019

“You cannot cross the border here. If you cross here, you will be arrested.”[i]

When migrants arrive at Roxham Road, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is obligated to warn them against crossing and to instruct them to enter Canada through an authorized port of entry, a few kilometers away.

As soon as an asylum seeker steps onto Canadian soil, however, their tone often warms. At times, RCMP officers even help crossers with their luggage and console them, assuring them that they are safe.

“When I arrived in Canada, the fears that had me paralyzed were made a little easier, ironically, by the officers at the border, who were very welcoming. Of course, they had to do their jobs and be forceful how they had to be forceful, but at the time same, there was still a human touch that they offered, which made the landing a little bit softer.”

Maida*, Zimbabwean woman, 39 years old [ii]

Roxham is where two dead ends meet. A white concrete cone marks the spot where New York becomes Quebec. Since 2016, RCMP officers have been seeing individuals, families and even women in late stages of pregnancy crossing via Roxham Road nearly every single day in search of a safer life. Over the past two years, approximately 96% of all irregular land crossings into Canada have been through Roxham Road.[iii] Asylum seekers are arriving here from all parts of the world, including Nigeria, Haiti, Colombia, Turkey, and Pakistan,[iv] fleeing violence, persecution and instability.

When reflecting on the activity at Roxham, RCMP Cpl. Caroline Letang mentions, “You can see how desperate some of them were. It doesn’t take much for the human in us to come out. It’s not just a police officer talking anymore.”[v]

The human touch is what distinguishes Roxham from any other irregular border crossing. Every day of the week, there will be at least one friendly face on the American side of the border offering support and morale, helping ensure that Roxham remains a safe and welcoming port of entry. From Monday to Saturday, asylum seekers are greeted by Janet McFetridge, a resident of Champlain, NY, and on Sundays, volunteers from the Canadian group, Bridges not Borders, await with a warm smile. For nearly two years, Janet has stood at the border for two hours a day, six days a week, equipped with gloves, hats, baby clothes, and an assortment of other necessities.

Janet McFetridge / Image © MileAstray

When asked why she does the work she does, Janet states, “It’s a human connection. We all thrive on these connections with other humans. If I can connect with another human and make them feel better at a very difficult time in their lives with a difficult decision, then this is exactly what I believe I should do.”[vi]

A similar compassion drives the volunteers at Bridges not Borders. Comprised largely of residents of Hemmingford, QC, this group first mobilized in response to the influx of asylum seekers seen after the Trump administration’s decision to end the Temporary Protected Status Program – a humanitarian program that protected certain communities fleeing situations of disaster or instability in their home countries. What began as a group of residents providing breakfast to newcomers soon grew to be an organization that lobbies for the protection of refugee rights, welcomes asylum seekers crossing irregularly, and raises awareness about the people crossing Roxham in search of safety.  

“This is happening right near where I live and I couldn’t really not become involved in some way [..] It’s absolutely vital that we show compassion to those people who are coming here, asking us for help. If we’re not able to have a compassionate attitude, then I think that degrades us as a society.”

Wendy Ayotte, One of the founders of Bridges not Borders, 66 years old [vii]

Forced migrants face social isolation at various stages throughout their journey, and the impact of a warm welcome, even when manifested as a mere smile, cannot be overstated. The decision to leave one’s home country and uproot one’s entire life in search of a safer tomorrow is never an easy one. Maida, a mother of two children, recounted to me how months of anxious turmoil and long family discussions preceded the final decision to leave. Making the decision is just the start of the journey, however; while some families arrive by bus or plane into Plattsburgh, N.Y. directly, others journey weeks or months on end to make their way up through South and  Central America, through Mexico, the United States, and finally, to Canada.[viii]

Once migrants reach the U.S.-Canada border, they are forced to cross irregularly through ports such as Roxham due to the restrictions placed by the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). The STCA mandates that refugee claimants must request protection in the first safe country they arrive in, which effectively means that most claimants crossing through an authorized port of entry would be sent back to the U.S. If they do not have some form of protected status in the U.S., they will be deported to their country of origin.

Crossing through an unauthorized port of entry, however, can be very dangerous, particularly during winter. Forced migrants who are not well-equipped for the weather can suffer from frostbite and hypothermia, which, in severe cases, may result in death. In the winter of 2017, a Ghanaian woman died as she tried to cross irregularly from the U.S. into Manitoba to visit her newly-born granddaughter. A similar fate met a Dominican man earlier this year who was crossing in the opposite direction, in the forest near Lacolle, to meet his daughter.

Once just a dirt road in the forest, Janet notes how Roxham Road has been made safer by paved paths and gravel being laid over the ditches. The presence of volunteers and officials ensures that people will not freeze or drown.

Unfortunately, the relatively safe passage that Roxham Road provides may not last much longer. Border Security Minister Blair is seeking to renegotiate the STCA to close the ‘loophole’ that allows asylum seekers to claim refugee protection by crossing irregularly.[ix] If successful, this would mean  that most migrants who attempt to cross at  Roxham Road would be denied entry and sent back to the U.S., or to their countries of origin.

Tightening the STCA would only result in forced migrants seeking more dangerous paths into Canada, as witnessed with the increased death toll on the Mexico-U.S. border after enhanced border security. Harsher policies do not change the reality in countries such as Nigeria, Haiti and Colombia; individuals and families alike will continue to flee in hope of reaching safer lands, with the only difference being a greater risk to their lives along the journey.

Roxham provides safety and the warmth of social connection to migrants who have been forced to leave everything they call home. Asylum seekers arrive here with the hope of having a fair hearing in Canada for refugee protection – not to be sent back to an allegedly safe country with a zero tolerance policy or to the country they fled in the first place. Amnesty International has created a petition in response to the decision to renegotiate the STCA, and we can all participate by signing and calling on the government to rescind rather than renegotiate this agreement. Roxham may not offer any permanent solutions or guarantees to those fleeing for their lives, but it does offer a safe passage and a chance at securing a new life in Canada, making the landing a little bit softer.

[i] Huneault, Michel, dir. n.d. Roxham. National Film Board of Canada. Accessed June 1, 2019.

[ii] Anonymous (refugee claimant) in discussion with author, May 2019.

[iii] “Canada Wants to Close USA Safe Third Country Agreement Loophole and Begin Border Exit Controls.” 2019. Canadian Citizenship & Immigration Resource Center Inc. March 28, 2019.

[iv] “Refugee Protection Claims Made by Irregular Border Crossers.” Immigration and Refugee Board Canada. 2019. Accessed June 1, 2019.

[v] Seiden, Deidre. “In Search of a Better Life: Striking a Balance between Security and Compassion.” Royal Canadian Mounted Police. January 02, 2018. Accessed June 1, 2019.

[vi] Janet McFetridge (volunteer at Roxham Road) in discussion with author, May 2019.

[vii] Wendy Ayotte (one of the founders of Bridges not Borders) in discussion with author, May 2019.

[viii] Rihouay, François. “From Brazil to Canada: The New Odyssey for African Migrants.” France 24. April 14, 2018. Accessed June 01, 2019.

[ix] Wright, Teresa. “Blair Mulling Ways to Close Loophole in Safe Third Country Agreement.” National Observer. March 17, 2019. Accessed June 01, 2019.