The United States and Canada have reportedly reached an agreement that will allow border officials to turn back asylum seekers heading north across their shared border without considering their petitions for sanctuary, sparking outcry from immigrant groups.
US and Canadian media outlets reported the tentative agreement on Thursday, as US President Joe Biden visits the Canadian capital of Ottawa for his first official visit to the country since taking office in early 2021.
Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to confirm the agreement on Friday.
In a press release, Canada’s Migrant Rights Network condemned the action, calling it “unprincipled and dangerous” and stating that it would “force migrants to take even more dangerous routes” as they seek refuge.
Immigration rights groups have accused both leaders of reneging on their obligations to asylum seekers, as the US and Canada commit to more restrictive measures to turn back refugees amid attacks from conservative politicians.
The reported agreement expands a policy known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). The agreement maintains that the US and Canada are both safe countries for refugees and that refugees must apply for asylum in whichever country they arrive in first.
Under that policy, Canada is able to turn away asylum seekers at official ports of entry along the US border without considering their petitions.
However, people could still apply for asylum if they reached Canadian soil. About 39,000 people entered Canada last year through unofficial crossings such as Roxham Road, a dirt path between the US state of New York and Canada’s province of Quebec, which has become a symbol of the debate over the country’s immigration policies.
Conservative politicians such as Pierre Poilievre have needled Trudeau over the issue, characterising the prime minister as unwilling to clamp down on irregular migration and urging the government to close Roxham Road.
In an op-ed in the Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail last month, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said that the province’s capacity to accommodate the newly arrived asylum seekers was “largely exceeded” and called on the Trudeau government to rewrite the STCA.
In response to inquiries from Al Jazeera, Trudeau’s office said that it could not confirm Thursday’s media reports and did not respond to questions regarding criticism from refugee rights groups.
The agreement, first signed in 2002 and in effect since 2004, has been controversial since its inception, with rights groups in Canada petitioning to ease the policy or do away with it altogether. Instead, the Trudeau administration has sought to defend — and now expand — its use.
In the interim, the government has transferred asylum seekers out of Quebec to other provinces to distribute the challenges more evenly.
Experts say such actions can offer relief only in the short term and that Canada should expand the ability of refugees to seek asylum in a safe and orderly manner, rather than cracking down on irregular border crossings.
“It is completely impractical to try and seal the border. If you close Roxham Road, another will simply pop up somewhere else,” refugee lawyer Maureen Silcoff told Al Jazeera over a recent phone call.
“It’s the STCA itself that pushes people to places like Roxham Road because they can’t apply for asylum at official ports of entry.”
When options for seeking asylum are restricted, she added, people are rarely deterred. Rather, she noted, they seek out more remote locations where they can enter the country, even if it means accepting greater risks.
“If they pursue a path of greater restrictions,” said Silcoff, “people will die.”
The STCA has also faced persistent legal challenges and has been struck down twice by courts. Twice, appeals courts have upheld the policy, which is now being weighed by Canada’s Supreme Court, where advocacy groups hope it will be ruled unconstitutional.
Such groups have also questioned the premise that the US is a safe destination for refugees amid reports of poor conditions in US immigration detention centres.
“Canada has an international reputation as a country with a history of assisting refugees,” said Jamie Liew, an immigration expert at the University of Ottawa.
“We have a system for determining refugee claims that is considered the gold standard. Why not let it work? If we opened our official ports of entry, people could cross smoothly and with dignity.”
Experts also note that the tide of people fleeing desperate circumstances is unlikely to ebb anytime soon, especially as climate change drives displacement, particularly in poorer countries.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 100 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2022.
The year before, nearly 5 million people left their countries to seek asylum.
“What Canada faces is a drop in the bucket compared to other countries,” said Liew. “We have an obligation to allow people to make refugee claims.”__Al Jazeera