OTTAWA – A newly released memo shows federal officials warned last spring that expanding a bilateral refugee pact to cover the entire Canada-U.S. border would likely fuel smuggling networks and encourage people to seek more dangerous, remote border routes.
Officials feared the development would also strain RCMP resources as irregular migrants spread further across the vast border.
The April memo, released by Public Safety Canada under the Access to Information Act, was prepared ahead of a Cross-Border Crime Forum meeting with American officials.
Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, which came into force in 2004, Canada and the United States recognize each other as sanctuaries for seeking protection.
The pact has long allowed both countries to turn away a potential refugee who shows up at a land port of entry along the Canada-U.S. border — unless they qualify for an exemption — on the grounds that they are enforcing their claim in the country have to do in which they arrived first.
However, until this year, this did not apply to those crossing between official entry points.
On March 24, during US President Joe Biden’s visit to Ottawa, the two countries announced that the Safe Third Country Agreement would cover the entire land border starting the following day.
The move followed concern and debate over increases in irregular migration to both Canada and the United States.
The internal memo said the Cross-Border Crime Forum was an opportunity to reaffirm Canada’s commitment to ensuring fair and orderly migration between the two countries, including by supporting the expansion of the refugee agreement.
The memo noted that the number of irregular border incursions by the RCMP decreased between March 25 and April 25.
But “Despite preliminary positive results regarding the volume of irregular migration, changes to the (Safe Third Country Agreement) are expected to alter the criminal threat environment and exacerbate existing threats to the Canada-U.S. border,” it says.
It said individuals may be motivated to cross the border via more dangerous and remote routes to avoid law enforcement and circumvent the enhanced protocol.
It is “highly likely that human smuggling networks will expand their activities and play a critical role in these illegal entries” by providing services such as safe housing, fake documents and transportation to and from the border, the memo said
“People smuggling poses significant risks to irregular migrants and exposes them to dangerous conditions. Irregular crossings in remote, rural or isolated locations can result in injury or death.”
In addition, the memo said, the RCMP is aware that irregular migrants may become victims of physical or sexual abuse or human trafficking during their journey to Canada.
Irregular migration through isolated regions endangers the health and safety of participating RCMP members, the memo continues. “These activities also pose a challenge to the RCMP’s resources as irregular migrants become less concentrated and more dispersed across the Canada-U.S. border.”
The memo also warned that organized crime groups could use the changing irregular migration routes along the border to smuggle illegal goods such as drugs, weapons and tobacco.
The internal warnings reflected concerns raised by the Canadian Refugee Council about expanding the Safe Third Country Agreement. In that sense, the contents of the memo are not surprising, said Gauri Sreenivasan, one of the council’s executive directors.
“What is very concerning is that it underscores how clearly the administration was aware of the dangers associated with closing the border,” she said in an interview.
The council has repeatedly spoken out against the refugee pact, saying the United States is not always a safe country for people fleeing persecution.
The best public policy is to allow an applicant to show up safely at a border crossing and have their case heard fairly, Sreenivasan said. “There is nothing illegal about asking for protection. In fact, it is a right protected by international human rights law.”
In late March, shortly after the expansion of the refugee agreement, eight people drowned in the St. Lawrence River when an apparent attempt to smuggle them into the United States failed.
A statement issued following the Cross-Border Crime Forum meeting in late April said cabinet members from both countries had asked officials to review recent incidents along the border to identify ways to improve intelligence, detection and to disrupt cross-border smuggling, investigate events and hold people accountable.
RCMP spokeswoman Marie-Eve Breton says the collaborative efforts “have demonstrated our ability to respond to the evolving threat situation at the border.”
If people moving between ports of entry are intercepted by the RCMP or local police, they will be taken to a specific port of entry unless national security or crime concerns are identified, Breton said. At the port of entry, the Canada Border Services Agency will then decide whether or not the claim is admissible under the Safe Third Country Agreement.
The Border Patrol says it is working closely with Canadian and U.S. partners to ensure the lawful, safe and humane treatment of refugee applicants while maintaining border security.
“Entry between ports of entry is illegal and unsafe,” said Maria Ladouceur, a spokeswoman for the border agency. “We encourage asylum seekers to cross the border at designated ports of entry.”
Breton also urged cross-border commuters to follow the rules. “This process is safer, faster and compliant with the law.”