Desperately seeking asylum

Refugees fleeing persecution and hard times from around the world are increasingly crossing into Canada illegally from the United States, according to Freedom House, a local nonprofit that provides support services to asylum-seekers.

Freedom House representatives discovered this while helping the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) monitor the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement for the U.S. and Canadian governments at the Detroit-Windsor border.

Implemented in December, the agreement is intended to stem the flow of people seeking political asylum and refugee status in Canada. It gives customs officials there increased discretion to refuse claims by asylum-seekers.

Freedom House Legal Director David Koelsch says that with more people crossing illegally, it’s harder for Canadian authorities to know just who is coming across. “Now they’re forcing people to go underground — and it’s become a security issue,” he says. “I’d feel better if the Canadians knew who was coming in.”

There are no clear figures as to how many people are crossing illegally into Canada. Koelsch, who has opposed the agreement from the outset because of fears that it will lead to large numbers of legitimate asylum-seekers being turned back, notes that Freedom House gets frequent calls from people who’ve already entered Canada illegally and are seeking advice once they get there. “The reason we know people are being smuggled over is that they call us,” he says.

UNHCR officials, meanwhile, say they are unaware of this particular effect of the agreement. “We haven’t come across any evidence that there has been increased smuggling,” says Nanda Na Champassak, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, which is helping monitor the effects of the agreement on the Canadian side from Ottawa. “But it is certainly something we would like to see brought to our attention.”

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