Canada shut its land border to asylum seekers, but more refugees are coming: ‘It only increases the desperation’

Asia World

A deal Canada struck this year to stem the flow of asylum seekers entering from the US was, at first glance, a quick success: Within days, the number of people caught at unofficial crossings along the border dwindled to a trickle.

But five months later, the overall number of people filing refugee claims in Canada has risen instead of falling. Many now come by air, while others sneak across the border and hide until they can apply for asylum without fear of being sent back, people working with migrants said.

The numbers show how hard it is for countries to shut the door on desperate people and the challenge unexpected numbers of asylum seekers can pose: In Toronto, hundreds slept on the streets this summer as they struggled to find beds.

“The basic reality is that closing a border doesn’t do anything to solve the need for protection,” said Shauna Labman, an associate professor and acting director of the Human Rights Programme at the University of Winnipeg.

“It only increases the desperation.”

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Canada prides itself on welcoming immigrants and aims to bring in a record half a million new permanent residents in 2025 to deal with an acute labour shortage. But it has sought to discourage those applying for asylum, chiefly through an agreement with the US under which each country turns back asylum seekers.


Still, last year alone, more than 39,000 asylum seekers entered Canada via unofficial crossings – mostly into Quebec via a dirt path off Roxham Road in New York, prompting the province to complain it could not handle the arrivals. Asylum seekers are drawn by Canada’s reputation for swifter processing and greater acceptance of asylum applications compared to the US.

In response, Canada and the United States in March amended their two-decade-old asylum seeker pact, the Safe Third Country Agreement. The agreement now applies to the length of the countries’ 4,000-mile land border, rather than just at ports of entry.

The expanded pact led to a dramatic drop in the number of people intercepted at informal crossings – down to double digits in April through July from 4,173 in March.

But overall, the number of asylum seekers entering Canada has surged. The total number of refugee claims made in Canada rose in July to 12,010 – the highest monthly total since at least January 2017 – and up from 10,120 in March, according to data from the immigration, refugees and citizenship department.


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Some of the higher numbers are being driven by more people filing refugee claims at airports or local immigration department offices – often days, weeks or months after arriving in the country, government data shows.


People applying at airports comprised about a third of all refugee claims made in July, up from about 16 per cent in March. Those filing claims at immigration offices accounted for about 54 per cent of July’s total, up from about a third in March. The top five countries that claimants came from in the first half of the year were Mexico, Haiti, Turkey, Colombia and India – though the numbers include those who applied before the expanded US pact.

At least part of the reason for the latest influx is that Canada is among a shrinking group of countries seen as offering safe harbour while pressures of war, climate change and human rights violations force a greater number to flee, some migrant experts say.

The world is facing unprecedented flows of migrants and refugees, and Canada is not immune

Remi Lariviere, Canada’s immigration office

The European Union, for example, recently introduced an asylum seeker pact allowing nations to more quickly send back some migrants. Britain’s government is pushing forward on a law making it easier to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, while US President Joe Biden’s administration has introduced a rule making it harder for migrants to receive asylum if they cross US borders illegally.

Hana Bakhi from Sudan is seeking asylum in Canada. Photo: Reuters

“If you’re a person who’s trying to make this set of decisions, then Canada becomes a more likely option,” said Craig Damian Smith, a research affiliate at the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University.


“The world is facing unprecedented flows of migrants and refugees, and Canada is not immune to these trends,” Remi Lariviere, a spokesperson for the department, said in a statement.

Lariviere said Canada amended the deal with the US to address “irregular” crossings and that the expansion “does not mean that claims for asylum will not be made in Canada at all.”

“It is the first country that I thought about”, said Hana Bakhit. The 35-year-old from war-torn Sudan says she applied for a visitor’s visa in May, flew to Canada in July and filed a refugee claim two weeks later.


She has been sleeping in a mosque and a church, calling Toronto’s central shelter daily for a bed, only to be told there are none available. Still, she considers herself lucky to be in Canada.