Montreal, Canada – Community activists say they have mobilised to counter efforts by a far-right group to intimidate asylum seekers on the US-Canada border, as thousands of people have entered the province of Quebec there since last year.
A rally in support of refugees and migrants will be held on Saturday at a popular crossing point on the border, Roxham Road, to welcome asylum seekers into the country.
Between January and April this year, more than 7,300 asylum seekers walked across the border into Quebec province without permits in that area.
“We believe that Quebec and Canada should be welcoming places for asylum seekers and that we have the resources to welcome them properly,” said Aaron Lakoff, from the group Solidarity Across Borders, at a press conference on Wednesday in Montreal.
Lakoff said Saturday’s rally also aims to prevent members of a far-right group from intimidating newcomers at the border.
Calling itself an “ultra-nationalist” group, Storm Alliance has been active in Quebec since 2016 and purports to have about 3,000 members, according to information put out by anti-fascist activists in Montreal.
The group, which publicly says it doesn’t have ties to the far-right, plans to hold its own protest against the irregular entry of asylum seekers into Canada near the border on Saturday as well.
“We consider Storm Alliance to be a racist, far-right group… [They] will try to go to Roxham Road to sow fear and hatred against refugees,” Lakoff said.
“We will be there, at Roxham Road, with a clear message to say that we want to open the border and that refugees are welcome.”
There has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers irregularly crossing the border into Quebec since last year.
A bilateral agreement between the US and Canada makes it impossible for asylum seekers who are already in the US to apply for asylum in Canada at an official port of entry.
But a loophole in that deal, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), gives asylum seekers the right to have their refugee claim assessed if they are already on Canadian soil.
As a result, thousands of people have walked across the border into Canada since early 2017, with nearly all of them immediately telling Canadian officials they want to apply for refugee status.
The asylum seekers can stay in Canada while their refugee claim is being processed.
“The Safe Third Country Agreement is dangerous; it has actually caused the loss of peoples’ lives,” said Robyn Maynard, a writer and activist based in Montreal, at Wednesday’s press conference.
Mavis Otuteye, a Ghanaian citizen, died of hypothermia as she attempted to cross the border into Canada in the winter of 2017. Other asylum seekers have also lost fingers to frostbite as they trudged through snow to get over the border.
Maynard said the crisis isn’t that people are crossing borders; the crisis is the human rights abuses that asylum seekers experience, including unjust detention and deportation.
“This is the crisis of our time. This is the great injustice of our time, and it’s very important for Canadians and the Canadian government to recognise this and to act,” she said.
Last year, Canada’s federal police, the RCMP, intercepted 20,593 asylum seekers walking across the border without visas, and 91.5 percent entered the country in the French-speaking province of Quebec.
In April alone, the RCMP stopped 2,479 asylum seekers who irregularly crossed the border into Quebec. That’s a 269 percent increase from the same month last year, when 672 RCMP interceptions were recorded in the province.
Amid reports the Canadian government sought to amend the agreement, Ottawa said earlier this month it has raised “concerns” with the US about the situation at the border “given what Canada perceives as challenges with the STCA in a modern environment”.
The dual rallies at the border will be held amid renewed fears the border crossings could stoke anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.
Experts also say there has been an uptick in far-right groups operating in Canada.
In its 2017 public report on the threat of “terrorism in Canada”, the ministry of public safety said right-wing extremism is “a growing concern”.
While right-wing violence has been “sporadic and opportunistic”, the deadly attack at a Quebec City mosque in January 2017 “is a reminder that attacks perpetrated by those who espouse extreme right-wing views can occur”, the report said.
Earlier this month, a group of researchers, journalists and other experts launched a new group to document and counter the rise of far-right hate groups in Canada. Between 120-130 such groups currently operate in the country, one expert said.
This isn’t the first time Storm Alliance has organised a protest at the border. A similar rally against asylum seekers crossing into Quebec was held last September.
About 300 members of the group showed up on the Canadian side of the border, media reports said. Many wore dark sunglasses, caps and bandanas over their faces and waved Quebec flags.
Members of La Meute, an anti-Muslim, far-right group that also operates in Quebec, were also on hand.
They were met by a smaller contingent of anti-fascist activists, and the border was closed for several hours as police sought to keep the two groups apart.
Lakoff of Solidarity Across Borders said known neo-Nazis participated in that earlier Storm Alliance protest.
This time, he said, he expected a few hundred anti-racist activists to be there to counter the group.
“We’re going to take the space to make sure that Storm Alliance does not get to go to the border with their racist and hateful message,” Lakoff said.
“We believe that Quebec and Canada are welcoming societies where refugees are welcome. We will be there with that message. I can’t say what they will do on their side, but for us, these are dangerous groups.”