On July 12, 2019, the Trump administration announced new immigration rules ending asylum protections for almost all migrants who arrive at the US-Mexico border. According to the new rules, any asylum seekers who pass through another country before arriving at the southern border will no longer be able to make a claim for asylum if they did not make an asylum claim in the country through which they transited. The change would affect most of the migrants arriving through Mexico majority of who come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and others from Haiti, Cuba, Africa and Asia.
Immigration attorneys and experts say the rule ending asylum protections is a violation of domestic and international asylum laws. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the rules were “patently unlawful” and vowed to file a lawsuit against them. The US Refugee Act limits the right of asylum if the applicant can be sent back to a “safe third country”, but advocates point out that neither Mexico nor any Central American country meets the standards of a safe third country. The changes are simply aimed at enabling the U.S. to more quickly reject people’s asylum claims, allowing for quicker deportations. Lee Gelernt of ACLU said, “The Trump administration is trying to unilaterally reverse our country’s legal and moral commitment to protect those fleeing danger.”
One week after these changes were announced, Politico reported that the Trump administration is now considering a virtual shutdown of refugee admissions next year — cutting the number to nearly zero. The Christian Reformed Church in North America released a statement about this expressing their devastation at how “ending or nearly ending U.S. refugee resettlement for FY2020 would be extremely damaging to our churches, organizational partners, communities, and national identity.”
There is a likelihood that these newly announced changes will have an impact on asylum seekers who are already in the US. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the new rule “will put vulnerable families at risk. It will undermine efforts by countries across the region to devise the coherent, collective responses that are needed. This measure is severe and is not the best way forward.” Although Canada’s federal government thinks otherwise, the changes are likely to have a domino effect on Canada with which the US signed the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) in 2004. In Reclaiming Protection, CPJ provides the background on STCA – which allows the Canada Border Services Agency to return refugee claimants to the U.S. under the premise that they should make their claim in the first “safe” country in which they arrive. Individuals flee the US to Canada for various reasons including such policy changes, the fear of deportation to their unsafe countries and anti-immigration sentiments that render their stay in the US untenable. It is due these fears that thousands have been prompted to leave the US and seek safety in Canada. With the current administration’s harsh stance against refugees, the U.S. is not a safe place for many refugees. When refugees are returned to the U.S., they are at a high risk of being detained and returned to countries where they may be subject to harm or persecution upon arrival.
Reacting to the changes, the Canadian federal government said it stands by its designation of the U.S. as a safe third country despite domestic and international calls to suspend a border pact with Washington in the wake of controversial asylum policy changes implemented by the Trump administration. “The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. is not affected by these changes,” because “The United States remains a country governed by the rule of law, and by the branches of the executive, legislative and judiciary, while also subscribing to international conventions on refugees and on torture,” said the press secretary for Minister of Border Security Bill Blair.
However, as CPJ pointed in an earlier statement, the failure of the US to fully comply with many refugee obligations calls the legitimacy of the STCA into question. It is an unjust policy for refugees seeking protection in Canada because all refugees have a right to receive due process, and yet STCA denies those arriving from the US this basic right. In their legal challenge to the STCA, the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches have presented extensive evidence showing that sending refugee claimants back to the US also violates their rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They further argue that while the US asylum system has long suffered from significant failings, these deficiencies have been exacerbated under the Trump administration.
It is time for Canada, as a world leader in refugee rights protection, to end the STCA with the U.S. Canada should pursue a robust alternative that promotes and protects the human rights and fundamental freedoms of refugees.
CPJ reiterates that Canada must #RescindSTCA to protect the most vulnerable.