Roxham Road: A Breach to Save Lives

14 March 2023|JRS Canada

credit photo: Segon Torra
By arguing over legalities and resources, we fail to see the humanity in the lives of these refugee claimants.

During this season of Lent, I would invite you to consider what it means to extend your hand to refugee claimants.

The Bible tells us the story of a man who was beaten by thieves along the way and left for dead on the side of the road. Many people passed by him, but no one dared to come to his aid except a man, a Samaritan. This Samaritan gave him first aid, carried him to an inn and paid for his care, room and board so that the wounded man could recover his health. This Samaritan came to the aid of a stranger out of compassion. For us, accompanying an asylum seeker has the same meaning as this parable. We become aware of the common humanity that inhabits us all.

The issue of refugee claimants (or asylum seekers as they are called in the United States) is again making headlines.  This is mainly because there has been a significant increase of people claiming refugee status at the Roxham Road irregular border crossing which is at the border of New York State and the province of Québec. The reason why refugee claimants cross the border irregularly is because of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between Canada and the United States.  This agreement basically states that a person claiming refugee status must do so in the first country of arrival.  However, the agreement applies only to official border crossings.  Someone who therefore arrived first in the United States and then wishes to go to Canada must enter Canada at an irregular border crossing.  This will allow him or her to make a refugee claim in Canada.

In the coming months, the Supreme Court of Canada will decide on the fate of the STCA.  The STCA is based on the premise that Canada and the United States are both safe countries for people claiming refugee status.  However, there are some people and organizations who have argued that the United States is not safe for certain refugee claimants and the STCA must be abolished because of that.  The abolishment of the STCA would allow refugee claimants to arrive at an official border entry point to claim refugee status. There have also been calls by certain politicians to shut down Roxham Road and to expand the STCA to include the whole border and not just official border crossings.  This would require border authorities to monitor the whole border.  That would be impossible.  Anybody involved in border patrol at the Canadian/U.S. border would ascertain this.  Others have said we have to curb the irregular crossings since we do not have the resources to accommodate all of those who are seeking protection.

The abundance or lack of resources always comes down to a question of our willingness as a society to look after those who are in need.  Canada has an abundance of resources that it simply does not tap into.  If there was a true willingness on the part of our governments, we could curb and stop tax evasion by the wealthiest members of our society.  That alone would go a long way in helping the ones in need. By arguing over legalities and resources, we fail to see the humanity in the lives of these refugee claimants. A humanity that, at the core, is a humanity that we all share; we simply forget it since we live in this rich country that is called Canada.  We do not experience what it is like to live under gang rule in Haiti; we do not know what it is like to live in Nigeria where to be a gay person is punishable by 14 years in prison; we do not know what it is like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia who cannot be seen in public without a male guardian; we do not experience the constant fear that a Ukrainian child goes through when there are night raids in his or her community; we don’t even know what it is like to be an Indigenous person whose community is under a boil water advisory.

It is only when we meet these people and start putting ourselves in their shoes that we will start to understand, to truly understand in our gut, the terrible experiences that have forced them to flee their homes and their countries.  As people who live in a wealthy country, we have a choice:  we can choose to build walls to try to prevent people from coming to Canada, keep our wealth to ourselves and allow others to suffer, and in some cases, perish; or we can choose to build bridges, to welcome those who have fled intolerable situations and share what we have which will make us better persons.  The choice is ours.  Let that choice be made in light of the Good Samaritan Parable and our shared humanity.

Norbert Piché, JRS Country Director, Canada