Eight people, including two children, perished in the icy waters of the St. Lawrence while trying to cross the border through the Akwesasne reserve, whose territory straddles Ontario, Quebec and the United States. A tragedy that could be repeated, fear community groups and immigration experts, with the tightening of border measures; migrants might seek more dangerous passages.

While searching for a better life, they met their deaths: a total of eight migrants, including two children, perished in Akwesasne, Quebec, while crossing the St. Lawrence to the United States. A drama that brings to the fore issues of human trafficking and border closures.

The search continued on Friday after six bodies were discovered a day earlier in the St. Lawrence on the Quebec side of Akwesasne — a Mohawk community that straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

Boats criss-crossed this marshy area, near the Yellow and Saint-Regis Islands, all day, including those of the Akwesasne firefighters, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, assisted by volunteer boaters.

The area is located about 130 kilometers west of Montreal, very close to the US border and Ontario.

A helicopter from the Sûreté du Québec also landed in the middle of the morning before flying over a portion of Yellow Island for many minutes. When they returned to shore around 11:30 a.m., the search participants appeared to have recovered a small body, hidden under a white tarp.

The authorities finally confirmed at the end of the day that they had found two additional bodies. It is a woman of Indian origin and a child whose parents are of Romanian origin, who had a Canadian passport.

Earlier, Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy local police chief, said the first six victims came from two families, one Romanian and the other Indian. “We believe the victims were trying to enter the United States illegally,” she explained.

The search began on Thursday after a military helicopter identified an overturned boat. This one belongs to Casey Oakes, a 30-year-old man from Akwesasne who has been missing since Wednesday. He was last seen boarding a blue boat in the eastern part of Cornwall Island, Ontario.

The authorities have asked for the public’s help in locating Mr. Oakes, but, according to the police, there is no link at this time to linking this disappearance to the bodies of the eight migrants.

If the reasons that lead some to want to leave Canada to join the United States are not known, this sea route is busy.

Since January, the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service says it has handled 48 incidents in which 80 people attempting to enter the United States illegally were intercepted. “I can’t say it’s up. Our community is used to these kinds of incidents, “said Akwesasne Police Service Chief Shawn Dulude at a press conference.

The Akwesasne reserve straddles the Canada-US border, at the junction of Quebec and Ontario. People arriving by boat can easily enter the United States since there is no border crossing in Mohawk territory.

Generally, migrants crossing are met on the U.S. side of Akwesasne by drivers who take them elsewhere in New York state, said Akwesasne Police Department Deputy Chief Lee-Anne O’Brien. Surveillance has also been increased recently.

Accompanied by the Grand Chief of the Akwesasne Band Council, Abram Benedict, Mr. Dulude also pointed out that the community was used by members of organized crime for trafficking of all kinds.

“Human trafficking is likely to continue in the near future, for several reasons, and our community will continue to be exploited, which has daily repercussions. We will continue to lobby governments for more resources to enable us to secure our community,” added the Grand Chief.

Wayne Green, whose house is on the edge of the water, near the place of research, is not surprised by this drama. “We regularly see people being landed by boats on the shore near our home. There were some again last week at my neighbor’s,” he said, noting that the weather was particularly cold and windy on Thursday, and it was snowing. “They are often Afghans or Pakistanis. Some smugglers transport anything to make money, be it weapons, drugs or people,” he said.

Officers then went to the scene before locating four people identified as “foreign nationals”, who were subsequently transferred to Immigration Canada teams.

At that time, local police had urged their community to “be aware of their surroundings, especially those residing near a river system.”

“Persons involved in human smuggling attempted to use the shores of the St. Lawrence in the Kana:takon and Tsi Snaihne areas. Human trafficking is a crime; not only does this pose serious health and safety concerns for the person(s) committing the act, but it endangers the entire community of Akwesasne,” the police force warned at the time.

What’s more, in early March, an American smuggler received a five-year prison sentence for human trafficking after helping Indian nationals cross from Canada to the United States via the Saint-Laurent, in the same area. In April 2022, this smuggler’s boat sank while on the St. Lawrence River, a tributary of the river. The nationals had to be rescued by the Mohawk Police Service.

All of this comes just seven days after the agreement reached between Ottawa and Washington to close the Roxham Road crossing, used by thousands of migrants to enter Canada irregularly to seek asylum.

“Upsetting”, “terrible”: political reactions were quick to take place on Friday, the day after the discovery of the bodies of migrants in the waters of the St. Lawrence, in the Akwesasne reserve which straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York State.

The fact that this tragedy comes nearly a week after the closure of unofficial border checkpoints between Canada and the United States, including Roxham Road, has not escaped anyone’s notice. In a press briefing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not want to establish a direct link between the tightening of border measures and this tragedy. “There is an ongoing investigation, and I don’t want to jump on speculation and unconfirmed facts that are going around,” he said at a press briefing in Moncton, New Brunswick, on Friday. “We will have to fully understand what happened in order to be able to […] take the best measures to protect vulnerable people,” added the Prime Minister.

In Quebec, the Minister of Public Security, François Bonnardel, sent his thoughts to the community of Akwesasne on Friday. “There is an ongoing investigation, we are still waiting for the details. The [Sûreté du Québec] is in support. We are monitoring the situation closely,” he explained without giving further details. Prime Minister François Legault spoke of a “horrible drama”. The two elected officials declined to comment further when called upon to do so. During U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Canada last week, Ottawa and Washington announced an update to the Safe Third Country Agreement that would close the loophole on Roxham Road thousands of migrants to enter Canada irregularly to seek asylum. A situation that François Legault described as “a very nice victory” for Quebec.

Québec solidaire immigration critic Guillaume Cliche-Rivard, for his part, spoke of “terrible news”. The immigration lawyer hopes that the authorities will take an interest in smugglers who enrich themselves by putting the lives of people in danger. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but most likely someone arranged this passage, most likely someone got rich, and obviously it wasn’t safe. These are things that I hope will be investigated so that the smugglers are brought to justice,” he said in an interview. “If people are not allowed to go through regular border crossings, they will continue to cross borders by increasingly dangerous routes. These human tragedies can be avoided”, he also raised on his Twitter account.

PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, for his part, speaks of a “shattering human drama”. He pointed out that “there is limited information,” but that “governments have a responsibility to people who are clearly putting their lives at risk, and losing their lives in circumstances that we cannot accept as a society. Liberal Virginie Dufour lamented an “appalling situation.” “It’s really an immeasurable drama that we would not want to have to comment on,” she said, avoiding however, like Justin Trudeau, to establish a possible link with the closure of Roxham Road. “This tragedy is unbelievably sad. […] No one should go through such an ordeal, ”said the mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante.

While the case has no “direct link” to the closure of Roxham Road, the death of several migrants at Akwesasne does illustrate that increased border control measures risk “creating even more deaths”. , fear specialists and the community network.

“Certainly we cannot make the direct causal link with Roxham in this case, as the people were going to the United States. But in general, we know that the increase in border controls and deterrence measures has the effect of people taking more dangerous paths with smugglers and criminal networks,” explains the holder of the Research Chair in Immigration from Concordia University, Mireille Paquet.

She argues that tighter border measures, such as the closure of Roxham Road last week, “often increase the number of deaths and injuries” among migrants.

The professor specializing in regional immigration and citizen mobilization Chedly Belkhodja also agrees. “It’s really unfortunate that this all happened a week after the widespread media coverage around Roxham, but these people wouldn’t have gone through this anyway,” he clarifies at the outset.

That said, “the fear now is to see even more risky passages appearing organized by people who are ready to take people on boats”. “This reality has existed for a long time, especially in this region, but with everything that is happening now, it is possible that it will increase a notch, that we will see people who are literally ready for anything” , continues Mr. Belkhodja.

In the eyes of the spokesperson for the Action Committee for People Without Status, Frantz André, the death of these migrants – there were at least eight of them at the end of the day on Friday whose death had been confirmed – is “very worrying”. “For us, it was something that was predictable, and we weren’t the only ones saying that. That it happens just a few days after Roxham Road, that, on the other hand, we did not expect. It’s really worrying,” says Mr. André.

He says he has perceived “extreme distress” for several days in several migrants, who contact him in search of answers.

“In the United States, it has become too expensive for many, and others are outright afraid of being deported. These people are left on their own, with no answers. It is certain that what we see today, it will happen again tomorrow, ”laments Mr. André, visibly affected by the news.

He also calls the agreement reached last week between Ottawa and Washington to close Roxham Road an “arbitrary decision”.

At the collective Care for social justice, the doctor Nazila Bettache also affirms that “these deaths were foreseeable”. “Just like the deaths on the US-Mexico border, just like the deaths in the Mediterranean, these deaths are the result of a system designed to endanger people who everyone knows will not stop and cannot stop coming,” she insisted on Friday.

“We all know that even more people will die as a result of the recent expansion of the Safe Third Country Agreement. This extension is supposed to make migrants invisible to citizens here. But we will not be invisible. Our lives and our deaths are important,” said Solidarity Across Borders spokesperson Hady Anne.

His colleague Samira Jasmin for his part argued during the day on Friday that “nothing comes by chance”. “These immigration policies are putting human lives at risk!” We cross the border for a better world, and we find ourselves facing death. »

The death of several migrants on Thursday in the waters of the St. Lawrence near the Akwesasne reserve is a reminder that many people put their lives at risk to cross the border. Overview of some tragic events that have occurred in recent history.

February 19, 2023: José Leos Cervantes, a Mexican living in Toronto, was found in critical condition in Vermont near a border crossing, while trying to enter the United States through the municipality of Stanstead, in Estrie. According to information made public, he collapsed after being spotted by American patrol boats not far from the Canada-US border. His death was later pronounced in a hospital. Two other people are said to have accompanied the migrant as he tried to cross the border, but they managed to flee.

January 30, 2023: A migrant comes close to death trying to cross the US border at Potton. He was trying to get to the United States from Estrie. According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), it was his family who contacted the authorities in the middle of the night to report his disappearance.

January 4, 2023: The body of Fritznel Richard, a 44-year-old man of Haitian origin, is found near the Canada-US border. The man had tried to cross the border towards the United States on December 23, when Montérégie, like all of southern Quebec, was hit by a winter storm. He was initially trying to join his wife and child, who had previously returned to the United States after about a year in Quebec. His death from hypothermia was confirmed by the authorities.

January 19, 2022: The bodies of four Indian migrants, the parents and two children of the Patel family, are found near the Canada-US border in Manitoba. The four bodies were discovered in Canada, only ten meters from the border, not far from Emerson. Again, the victims died of cold, according to the autopsies that were performed.

March 28, 2023: Thirty-nine migrants die and 27 others are injured in a fire at a detention center in Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico, bordering the United States. In the wake of the tragedy, the United Nations is advocating for “safer” migration routes to the United States, and the United States Ambassador to Mexico is insisting on “fixing a broken migration system”.

October 29, 2022: At least five people, including a child, are killed when a motorboat carrying migrants to Florida collides with a Cuban Coast Guard vessel, Cuban authorities report. Eighteen people are rescued following the collision which occurs in waters north of Bahia Honda, west of Cuba.