What’s going to happen with all those refugees* crossing the US-Canada border?

You’ve probably seen the images of people entering Canadian territory from the US, woefully underdressed for winter temperatures. The police are even giving some of them a helping hand as they cross the border.

Aww, melt my frozen heart! (Image via globalnews.ca.)

What happens once they enter Canada?

They might receive a warm welcome from the RCMP (who among us could watch a family struggle across the snow and not lend a hand?), but that doesn’t mean they won’t go through the same channels as other asylum seekers. First, they are arrested for an illegal border crossing. (See below for why many choose to cross illegally.) They are taken to a Canada Border Services Agency for processing — jumping through the same hoops any other asylum seeker would have to. That includes being screened as potential threats to national security.

Why cross into Canada at all?

President Trump’s travel ban has caused chaos and confusion for many from those seven Muslim-majority nations (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen) who were already in the US. The Canadian government has made it clear that they will not be implementing such a ban, making it a safer bet for asylum seekers hoping to find refuge in North America.

What are the legalities behind it all?

In 2004, Canada and the US entered into an agreement called the “Safe Third Country Agreement”. Essentially, Canada put the US on a “safe country list”, and agreed that it would not process asylum claims from people who had already arrived in the US. The premise being: if you’re safe and sound on US soil, you don’t get to be picky about which country you want to take refuge in. The Agreement prevents people who are already in the US from filing a refugee claim at an official border crossing — e.g. at an airport or land border crossing. That’s why these intrepid asylum seekers are crossing the border Fargo-style— they’re hoping that agents will process their claims in Canada, rather than turning them away (as agents at official border crossings would have to do under the Agreement).

What does this mean for Canada-US relations?

So far, Canada-US relations have fine and dandy under President Trump. Our former PM Mulroney serenaded him at Mar-a-Lago, current PM Trudeau managed to avoid controversy (and the same kind of awkward handshake that Japanese PM Abe had to endure) during his first visit to the Trump White House, and Trump has made it clear that renegotiations to NAFTA would only see some “tweaking” as far as Canada is concerned.

Don’t look him in the eyes. It only encourages him. (Image via US Embassy to Canada.)

So far, so good.

But as more and more refugees make their way north, Canada may need to consider allowing them to cross at official border crossings. The small communities they arrive in are often unprepared for the kind of logistics and paperwork required for their claims. Not to mention the human suffering aspect — trekking across snowy fields in -20°C may not be as treacherous as crossing the Mediterranean in a makeshift raft, but it is no picnic either.

What’s next?

Trump will be announcing amendments to his travel ban today (Tuesday, February 21). It remains to be seen whether he’ll force the Canadian government’s hand to either remove the US’s designation as a safe third country, or continue its delicate diplomatic balancing act.

*the terms “refugees” and “asylum seekers” are both used. “Asylum seekers” refers to those seeking refugee status whose claims for asylum have not yet been processed . “Refugees” refers to those whose claims for asylum have been granted.

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