Canada’s Not So Safe Agreement

By Deborah Mebude

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau began his term in office by welcoming Syrian newcomers at the Toronto Pearson Airport, Donald Trump kicked off his presidency with three executive orders pushing for expedited deportations and strengthened immigration enforcement. When it comes to immigration and refugee policy, Canada and the United States seem to be increasingly at odds.

The human repercussions of these contrasting policies were on full display this summer, when more than 8,000 Haitian asylum seekers crossed into Canada in July and August alone.

This mass exodus was prompted by an announcement from the United States’ Secretary of Homeland Security. He advised Haitians that the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) that had allowed them to stay following the January 2010 earthquake was about to expire. As a result, many chose to head to Canada in hopes of applying for refugee status. But thanks to something called the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), they wouldn’t be able to do so at an official Port of Entry.

CPJ has long opposed the STCA, which has been in force since 2004. The agreement states that both Canada and the United States are “safe” countries. As a result, individuals in the United States cannot make a refugee claim in Canada, and vice versa. Instead, they are expected to make their claim from where they are.

Refugees, however, have the right to seek asylum, even if it means crossing national borders. Entering by foot, then, becomes the natural option for many. Refugee law deems this action not illegal, but rather “irregular.”

But if refugees need to flee the United States to make an asylum claim, is it actually a safe country?

The 1951 Refugee Convention mandates that countries not send individuals back to nations where they may be in danger of persecution. Currently, refugee claimants in the United States are in danger of this very issue. CPJ views the STCA as inherently problematic. Now more than ever, Canada and the United States do not approach refugee policy in the same manner. Yet the STCA makes Canada complicit to violations of refugee rights. With the STCA in place, individuals with legitimate refugee claims are dismissed simply because they’ve arrived via the United States.

To compound the issue further, the STCA puts already vulnerable populations in harm’s way by encouraging them to make dangerous journeys. Often, asylum seekers are vulnerable to smugglers and traffickers, dangerous weather conditions, and even death. By rescinding this agreement, Canada would allow individuals a chance to make their claim in a manner that is controlled, regulated, and that upholds human rights.

Recently, the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), the Canadian Council for Refugees, and Amnesty International launched a joint legal challenge questioning refugee policy in the United States and calling for Canada’s Federal Court to strike down the STCA.

“With the new administration, the previous concerns about whether the US is complying with international law have escalated,” said Peter Noteboom, acting general secretary of the CCC.

“We want refugees to have access to all the rights and freedoms of the charter.”

Because of the STCA, thousands of Haitians made the desperate decision to enter Canada on foot. Chances are, they won’t be the only ones. Some 300,000 residents currently hold TPS in the United States. Those from Sudan and Nicaragua have recently had their status terminated. Within the next year, individuals from South Sudan, Honduras, El Salvador, Syria, Nepal, Somalia and Yemen will too see their TPS expire. If these protections are not extended, it will mean hundreds of thousands of citizens expelled back to nations struggling to rebuild.

They shouldn’t have to enter Canada irregularly. They deserve access to our refugee system.

CPJ recognizes that as people of faith, we are called to care for our neighbours. As citizens of Canada, we have a responsibility to contest discriminatory and unjust policies that deny individuals their rights. The Canadian government must step up its global leadership in refugee rights and reconsider the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Photo Credit: Vmenkov

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