By Catherine Soylom
A Syrian mother and her three children spent two whole days inside the Lacolle border crossing over the weekend, in limbo between a country that wants to ban Syrian refugees and Canada, which welcomes them — as long as they don’t come in through the United States.
The family, which includes an 18-year-old boy and two girls ages 7 and 12, were eventually allowed into Canada on a special minister’s permit, and given temporary residency, until Feb. 18.
They are now living with distant relatives in Mississauga, Ont.
But first a long, anxious 48 hours had passed, ordering takeout from local restaurants and sleeping two nights on plastic chairs bolted to the floor.
“They heard Justin Trudeau on the radio saying Canada would continue to welcome people being excluded under (Donald) Trump’s policies and they took it literally, and they came,” said Jared Will, the Toronto-based immigration lawyer who has taken their case.
The problem is that under the Safe Third Country Agreement, they are ineligible to claim refugee status at an official border crossing.
That agreement stipulates someone can only claim asylum in the first country they land in — in this case the U.S. — unless they meet certain exceptions, for example if they have close family ties in Canada.
The Syrian family did make a claim in the U.S. But there are long delays in processing refugee claims there — four to six years — and Trump has sought to ban Syrian refugees altogether.
His executive order to that effect is currently on hold. But it appears unlikely the children’s father, who is still in Syria, would ever be able to join his family in the U.S., Will said.
“With a government that has decided that Syrian refugees are against the national interest, it’s easy to understand why a rational person would feel they are no longer in a safe place,” Will said, adding the family arrived at Lacolle on Thursday, before a Seattle judge had suspended Trump’s immigration ban.
They were extremely anxious because they feared they would be turned over to U.S. authorities and removed to Syria. — Jared Will
On Friday, Will appealed to a federal court judge to get an emergency order preventing their removal, on the ground the Safe Third Country agreement is unlawful and shouldn’t be enforced.
The family believed they would be stuck inside Lacolle, with no food or heat, until a hearing on Tuesday. They learned on Saturday evening they had been issued a special minister’s permit to enter Canada.
“They are in a different kind of limbo now,” Will said. “They can’t be deported back to the U.S. and there is a moratorium on deportations to Syria, so they are not going anywhere for now.”
But neither can they apply for refugee status, unless a judge eventually agrees with Will that the Safe Third Country Agreement should be rescinded.
“It’s an interesting situation — most people have figured out now that the Safe Third Country agreement only applies at formal border crossings,” Will said. “That’s why we’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of people making claims outside the border entry points, some of them taking huge risks to physically cross the border (elsewhere).”
Even on the Internet from Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, you can learn where to cross, Will said.