By Kathreen Harrison | Photos by Paula Allen

Bridges Not Borders, or Créons des Ponts, is a grassroots group in Hemmingford, Quebec, that is part of the Canada-U.S. Border Network, an informal coalition of groups supporting immigrants’ rights in both countries. Until recently, the Canadian government allowed migrants to enter the country at irregular crossings, including one familiar to asylum seekers in Maine called Roxham Road. However, on March 24, Roxham Road was abruptly closed to asylum seekers, in accordance with an agreement between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden. After that date, asylum seekers who arrive at the border and do not qualify for entrance to Canada according to the Safe Third Country Agreement are returned to the U.S., and authorities are notified. In recent years, as more and more countries have closed their doors to migrants, asylum seekers find themselves in increasingly desperate situations. What follows are excerpts from statements and blog posts by Bridges Not Borders, at  

Canadian and American volunteers with Bridges Not Borders went to Roxham Road both before and after the closing to bear witness to the impact of the actions of their governments on individual lives. What follows is the work of volunteers.  

Blog entry posted 4/19/2023

Bridges not Borders volunteers went to the Plattsburgh bus station and on arrival, we saw a young woman on her own, sitting outside with her bags, clearly exhausted and demoralized. We found out that she had earlier been returned from Canada after seeking asylum and despite having a qualifying anchor family member in Montreal who has Canadian citizenship. She was waiting for an acquaintance to pick her up. Only 24 years old, she was from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which she fled in 2021. 

Before arriving at the Canadian border she had traveled through many countries. She first spent time in neighboring Angola and then went to Brazil. In January she left Brazil and began the arduous journey northward through many countries and passed through the dangerous Darien Gap from Columbia to Panama. After being detained in the U.S., she found her way to Maine where there are many refugees from DR Congo. Conditions in Portland were challenging as there were no shelter places. She discovered that because of her relative in Canada she could qualify to enter under STCA rules. She decided to try to get to Canada.

She presented at Lacolle Port of Entry without having been advised how to prove the relationship with her family member or having the necessary documentation. Her relative had left DR Congo to go to Canada in the year of her birth, so they had no knowledge of each other’s lives. She told us that Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) had spoken with the family member and according to CBSA he had not been able to answer certain questions correctly (likely because he had no way of knowing about her life). She was not allowed to enter Canada.

Bridges Not Borders statement, April 2  

We are deeply shocked by the abrupt and callous enforcement of the new protocol to Safe Third Country Agreement [STCA] that now extends the agreement across the entire border and exposes asylum seekers to grave risks. Put into effect at midnight on March 24, with no more notice than eight hours, there was no time to inform people already en route to seeking safety in Canada. Some had traveled weeks and months only to find they had arrived too late and could no longer cross. Their despair is heartbreaking. 

Asylum seekers from Uzbekistan arrive at Roxham Road after the closing.

Because of Canada’s geographic isolation and restrictive visa requirements, most refugees can only arrive here through the land border. Roxham Road was a safe place for them to do so, but this is now blocked. Without other options, some people will undoubtedly try to cross on their own, or rely on traffickers waiting to exploit this situation. Some will die from hypothermia, drown, or lose digits to frostbite. Six people have lost their lives at the Canadian border over the last year, and this figure is bound to go up. If a refugee manages to cross clandestinely, the rule is now that they must evade detection for 14 days before being able to claim asylum, a punitive measure that will put them at even greater risk.  

When people come to our land border and fail to meet STCA criteria, they can never again seek asylum in Canada. They are returned to U.S. authorities. Yet, in 2007 and 2020, the Canadian federal court found that the U.S. is not a safe country for asylum seekers. Thousands are held in immigration detention, often in inhuman conditions that “shock the conscience” according to Federal Court Justice [The Honourable Ann Marie] McDonald in her 2020 judgment. Most do not have access to legal counsel, making it very difficult to pursue an asylum claim. Some refugees are deported to their homelands where their lives are in danger, the most serious breach of refugee law. If they have been in the U.S. for more than a year without applying for asylum they may find themselves in limbo, without status, struggling to survive and unable to return home. 

Roxham Road existed because previously STCA rules only applied at official Ports of Entry. Had the STCA been abolished, refugee claimants could have crossed safely across the country without straining the resources of just one province – a solution long favored by hundreds of Canadian organizations, churches, and lawyers.

Young woman from Haiti and her husband were returned from Canada.

Ironically, as the Roxham “crisis” evolved, the government worked with the provinces to settle over 190,000 Ukrainians in one year, and 426,000 more have so far been accepted. Yet only 40,000 asylum seekers crossed at Roxham Road in 2022. These were people fleeing from long-standing armed conflicts, persecution, gang violence, and societal collapse. While we welcome the Ukrainian program, we wonder where the special visas are for others in the same boat – like the people from Yemen who are in the ninth year of a devastating war, with widespread death, famine, and displacement? We cannot help but wonder about the racism implicit in such unequal treatment. 

The new Protocol was enacted without any democratic consultation, nor did the government wait for the imminent Supreme Court Judgment that will rule on whether the STCA is in fact valid. The agreement imitates the failed “solutions” of other nations who try to seal borders. We receive only a tiny proportion of the world’s forcibly displaced people, now at 103 million. Most of these people are found in poor countries with very few resources compared to ours. We missed the opportunity to respond creatively to this global crisis and to develop solutions that respect our obligations under the Refugee Convention. Instead, we are building a “fortress Canada” on a foundation of human tragedy. 

From the Bridges Not Borders blog  

Posted 4/2/2023: 

On Friday March 24, with only a few hours between the announcement of the new protocol during the day, and the closure of Roxham Road at midnight that same day, refugees were scrambling to make it to the U.S.-Canadian border in time. According to our contacts in the U.S., they were pleading with taxi drivers at Plattsburgh bus station to take them to Roxham Road before it closed. As midnight approached, some who had not crossed yet left their suitcases behind just so they could reach Canadian soil before it was too late. In the days that followed the closing, more refugees continued to arrive at Roxham Road, unaware the border had been closed. 

Families from multiple countries cross after closing. The young couple was deported four days later

March 30 

When I arrived at the bus station, I found about 20 people who had returned from the Champlain-St. Bernard de Lacolle border crossing after being excluded from Canada. These included nine or 10 Kurdish men from Turkey; five Venezuelans (two women and three men, including a 20-year-old woman who is eight months pregnant); three adult Colombians, including a woman with two small children; two Afghan men; an Uzbek man; one man from DR Congo. Later others arrived who I believe were Kurdish and Afghan. Many people had no money at all. 

The two Afghan men had been traveling for a year via Brazil, having left Afghanistan in March 2022. They had spent their last money on the taxi back from Lacolle after their exclusion. We [volunteers] paid their tickets to take them to Boston, and then they planned to travel onward to Maine. They will hopefully be provided with shelter by a Maine charity. One Afghan man had worked with the U.S. military and said he had saved the life of an American soldier severely wounded by a bomb (I saw the photos). The Kurdish men talked about the sense of despair that Kurdish people in exile feel about their situation. 

A man from Pakistan getting on the bus to New York after arriving too late

March 31 and April 1 
During a brief visit [an American volunteer] met with about 10 people and assumed more would arrive. They were Venezuelan, Colombian and Turkish Kurds.  

On Friday during a short visit, [she] met with about 10 people and assumed more would arrive. They were Venezuelan, Colombian, and Turkish Kurds. On Saturday, [she] met a Ugandan family of five on their way to Lacolle. The mother said she has a close relative in Canada (hopefully they were accepted). About eight people got off the bus from the border after being refused entry. Most of these people then got on a bus to N.Y: Venezuelans and a Nigerian mother with three young children. A Somali man returned from Lacolle in a taxi and was intending to go to Syracuse. 

Posted 4/10/2023 

We arrived at 2 p.m. at the bus station, which is in fact a convenience store called Mountain Mart. A family of five people was sitting there: mother, father, baby, and two girls aged about 4 and 8. We saw the tell-tale brown envelopes given to people by CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) at Lacolle just before they are sent back to the U.S. The family was Kurdish, from Turkey. We began communicating using Google Translate; the father also spoke a bit of English. They told us they had lost their home in the recent earthquakes … and had come up through the U.S. southern border. They had hoped to come to Canada where they have a cousin. The parents were stunned and in disbelief that Canada had turned them away. The mother kept repeating “earthquake victims.” We spoke with the cousin in Canada to explain the situation and STCA rules: cousins are not “qualifying’’ family members according to STCA rules. It took them a good while before the reality started to sink in. It was painful to watch. The mother was holding the baby (about 1 year old) in her arms as she spoke intently on the phone with various people. The two girls were clearly aware that something was very wrong. The parents had a few hundred dollars left. As time went on, they decided to stay overnight in a cheap hotel nearby, the Rip Van Winkle. One of us drove them there and bought them food and diapers. 

  Meanwhile a single man from DR Congo was brought to the Mountain Mart by an American volunteer who asked for our help translating into French. The man was planning to go to Texas, where he has a brother. The man has a common-law wife in Canada who is a permanent resident and he was hoping to join her. But it would be difficult to prove that they had previously lived together for one year as is required under STCA rules for common-law spouses. 

Next a group of five people from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic arrived. The group included a 9- or 10-year-old boy and a teenager. The five of them had entered the U.S. through the Mexican border and made their way to Roxham Road. After having been turned back, they spent their last dollars on the taxi ride back to the Plattsburgh bus station. They were waiting anxiously to hear from a friend or relative who might give them money to pay for bus tickets. As time went on and they had no news, they eventually let us buy them meals. 

Authorities explain the situation to families arriving after the closure

  Next to arrive at Mountain Mart was a young Haitian man, and a young woman from DR Congo. They had met at the Champlain-St. Bernard de Lacolle border crossing and both spoke French. They were disoriented and in shock. 

  As we were preparing to leave, after 7 p.m., another couple arrived in a taxi from the border, holding the brown envelopes from CBSA. We were able to speak with them as the man spoke some French and came from a francophone African country. They were hoping to be allowed into Canada because the man has a brother who is a Canadian citizen. They were in shock because they had not been allowed to enter. This time there was no explanation for their exclusion, as they should have qualified for an exception to the STCA. 

Authorities explain the situation to families arriving after the closure

Follow up  

 Plattsburgh Cares, a coalition of faith, service, and activist groups, paid for bus tickets to N.Y. for the Venezuelan-Dominican Republic family. They traveled on the evening of April 7. The Turkish family was provided with emergency housing. There may be a possibility that the family could be allowed to enter Canada under recent measures announced for Turkish and Syrian victims of the earthquakes. They are following this up with a Canadian immigration consultant. We were contacted by the young couple from Venezuela (the woman was due to give birth in the next two weeks) who had traveled to N.Y., where they found temporary shelter. However, they had not been given any funds or vouchers and were in a bad state. We forwarded money to them to buy food and were able to connect them with someone in N.Y. who brought them to a church, where they received food and also assistance with accessing medical care for the forthcoming birth. A Canadian refugee lawyer has taken on the case of the African francophone couple pro bono and will be requesting a judicial review of the decision to refuse them entry into Canada. We are hopeful that this will succeed. A small glimmer of hope in this ongoing sad situation of people being returned to the U.S., mostly without any support. We wonder how many other people have been wrongly excluded from Canada whose stories will never be heard.