Canada Must Step Up Against the STCA

By Ibnat Islam

In 2015, Morgan attempted to make a refugee claim at the Canadian border. She was instead sent back to Clinton County Prison in central Pennsylvania on a claim of acquiring a fraudulent U.S. visa. She was not asked about her reasons for seeking asylum but was instead asked if she had any family in Canada.

Morgan is not her real name. She chose to remain anonymous when sharing her story with the Canadian Council for Refugees.

She spent 10 days in solitary confinement. She describes the prison as cold and the guards as “aggressive and gratuitously cruel.”

Release from prison was not easy. Morgan, who didn’t know English and only had the ability to call collect, had to fill out forms in English and find a lawyer. Immigration court set her bond at a staggering $10,000. She was finally released after 51 days, after her family found her a lawyer and raised money for her bond.

Morgan was never asked why she was seeking asylum.

The prison experience itself was not the only difficulty Morgan faced. She bonded with the other women there, who she had to leave when she was released. Of these women, Morgan says, “they prayed day and night not to be deported to their country… Alas, they remained stuck in a country that did not care about their rights… they had no one to pay their bond that could buy them more time or enable them to get competent lawyers.”

This is the harm of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).

The STCA is an agreement between Canada and the U.S. which designates both countries as “safe” for asylum seekers, thereby requiring refugee claimants to stay in the first “safe” country they arrive in. It has long been a controversial topic in the world of migration politics and advocacy. From severe injuries to trauma and death, the agreement has put asylum seekers in dehumanizing, inhumane circumstances. The Canadian government has a responsibility to put a stop to these atrocities. Yet the reality of the government’s stance is worrying.

In July 2020, the Canadian Federal Court ruled that STCA is “unconstitutional.” The ruling has resulted in Ottawa-based advocates of refugee rights asking “to immediately and unilaterally suspend the agreement with the United States.” This ruling, and the reaction it has incited throughout advocacy circles and human rights organizations, shows the importance of major changes being made with regards to the STCA through reformations and ultimate suspension. According to Article 10 of the agreement, Canada is easily able to terminate the agreement by “sending written notice to the U.S. government.”

Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Council of Churches, and the Canadian Council for Refugees have brought forward this court challenge. In July, they wrote a letter to the Canadian government, urging them to stop sending asylum seekers back to the U.S. and refrain from appealing the court ruling. They write that the ruling, “provides a crucial opportunity for the government to act decisively and live up to its responsibility to bring to an end years of grave violations of the rights of refugee claimants seeking protection.”

The Canadian government, however, responded with an appeal. On August 21, 2020, Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety, released a statement confirming the appeal. He justifies it by saying the Canadian government found “factual and legal errors” in parts of the court’s findings. He adds that the government is “committed to upholding a compassionate, fair and orderly refugee protection system. STCA remains a comprehensive vehicle to help accomplish that.”

The Canadian government believes that the agreement is a process through which asylum seekers are able to seek refuge through the “compassionate, fair and orderly refugee protection system.” Despite first-hand accounts of asylum experiences with the STCA, advocate and expert oppositions, and a Federal Court ruling binding these together with strong contestation, the Canadian government seems firm in its stance that the STCA should be upheld.

In 2017, Morgan crossed the border at Roxham Road, an unofficial border crossing south of Montréal. She is currently in Canada. Morgan’s painful journey shows the government’s negligence of asylum seekers’ rights. Such a harrowing experience would not have occurred were it not for the government allowing the STCA to carry on as it does.

The government must prevent future instances of these experiences. Instead, they must prioritize the lives and rights of asylum seekers by rescinding the STCA and developing a system that values the lives and rights of asylum seekers.

In December 2020, CPJ partnered youth-led advocacy organizations STAND Canada and STAND USA to release a report on the Safe Third Country Agreement entitled, “Slamming the Door.”

Photo Credit: Daniel Case/Creative Commons.

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