For the exhausted migrants, a small stretch of snow-covered road is the last step in a long journey to a new life in Canada. Some lug heavy suitcases, others carry all their worldly possessions in small plastic bags.
Rushing to enter their new country, Haitians, Venezuelans, Colombians and Turks pick up their pace as they step out of a car with their heads bowed to finally cross the final border of their journey: the one separating Canada and the United States, between New York State and Montreal.
“Stop it! Crossing here is illegal, if you do you will be arrested,” a Canadian police officer repeats to the migrants who arrive in groups throughout the day and night at what is known as the Roxham Road crossing.
Among the latest arrivals under heavy snowfall, some do not have winter coats and boots, only light clothes and sneakers. Mothers carrying children or stuffed toys struggle to push strollers in the deep snow.
Only the children are smiling, looking fascinated to see snow for the first time.
With a small backpack slung over his shoulder, Mackenzie Dorgeville says he’s overjoyed to finally arrive in Canada after fleeing violence in Haiti and spending years on the road. He describes his journey as an obstacle course, listing the 10 countries he crossed in South and Central America to eventually get here.
The slightly built 40-year-old knows that even if his asylum claim is rejected, Canada does not deport Haitians.
As they cross the border, NGO volunteers give migrants coats, gloves and hats, as well as words of encouragement. “We just want them to know that there are people who support the journey they go through in their search to find a place to live safely,” says Bridges Not Borders volunteer Frances Ravensbergen.
After being screened and registered by police, migrants are taken to the nearest official border post to apply for asylum – between 50 and 60 percent of applications are approved.
– Growing uncertainty –
After a few months, they usually get a work permit and the children go to school. Migrants are entitled to health care and other social benefits and are accommodated in refugee centers or hotels paid for by the government while their application is processed.
Since pandemic restrictions were lifted and borders reopened, migration flows have increased around the world.
Roxham Road is now a famous crossing point and social media is full of videos explaining how to get there, how much it costs to get from the nearest bus station in Plattsburgh, New York to the border.
In 2022, nearly 40,000 people arrived in Canada via this route, twice as many as 2017, which was the previous record year, according to Canadian immigration data. And they haven’t been deterred even by the bone-chilling cold of Canadian winters, with more than 5,000 arriving in January alone.
This illegal migration is somewhat new to Canada, which is difficult to access due to its relative geographic isolation and very strict visa policy.
“Among other things, the speed of the system in Canada is what attracts people here compared to the United States. On the American side, it can take five to six years or more compared to about two years in Canada,” explains Stephanie Valois, president of the Quebec Association of Immigration Lawyers, referring to how long it takes to process an asylum application.
There are growing calls to close Roxham Road, but she notes that to “seek safety, people will do anything” and that Canada has a responsibility. “Asylum seekers are crossing Darien, so it’s not the border that’s going to stop them,” she says.
This notorious piece of jungle between Colombia and Panama “is very difficult physically with mountains, a lot of mud and then criminal gangs that arrest migrants and rob them,” she says.
“People who have been through this are traumatized. My clients tell me horrific stories, women were raped, men were beaten, they lost everything and many died,” says the lawyer, who has dedicated her life to protecting asylum seekers.
– “If you fall, you die” –
That part of the journey remains traumatic for Ellie, a Haitian migrant who recently arrived and spoke to AFP in Montreal (at her request, AFP does not use her real name).
“It’s the worst in the jungle,” confides the young woman with long braids and big earrings, who rarely loses her smile. “I saw a lot of bodies, dead people on the road. One night we had to sleep next to corpses,” continued the 29-year-old woman, who came to Canada with her two-year-old daughter.
The narrow road, the rocks, the wild animals, “you know if you fall, you’re going to die,” she adds.
The influx of asylum seekers, particularly through Roxham Road, is expected to be a topic of discussion between President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the US leader’s visit to Ottawa on March 23-34.
In Canada, unaccustomed to this type of conversation, anti-immigrant rhetoric is on the rise.
A growing number of voices are calling for a renegotiation of the Canada-US treaty, which stipulates that migrants who wish to apply for asylum must do so in the first country they land in after leaving their home.