The Politics of the Safe Third Country Agreement

By Deborah Mebude

Now that the House of Commons has finished sitting for the summer, it’s almost easy to forget much of the commotion that characterized the last parliamentary session. When it came to immigration and refugees, rhetoric was fierce from all directions. MPs on every side of the floor delivered impassioned speeches and declared their party’s position as the ultimate solution to address the arrival of many displaced people from around the world.

On questions of how to deal with refugee claimants from the U.S., it’s no surprise that there was little consensus between the major political parties. Perhaps the most contentious of all was the topic of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), a policy that serves to streamline refugee processing by making it nearly impossible for refugees in the U.S. to make a claim in Canada.

CPJ’s newest report, Reclaiming Protection, takes a closer look at negative impacts of the STCA, particularly on refugee claimants. The conclusion of the report is clear, a just policy would uphold the rights of refugees to access protection by scraping the STCA. So while CPJ and others are calling for an overhaul to the STCA, political pressure is mounting. And as the countdown has begun to the 2019 Federal election, it’s useful to take a deeper look at exactly what the major parties are saying, and why.

Political stances on the Safe Third Country Agreement:

The Liberal government maintains that the U.S.  still meets the conditions under which the STCA came into force.  This means that they believe that the U.S.’s refugee process is fair and comprehensive and that it is in Canada’s best interest to continue with the agreement. Still, Ahmed Hussen, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has said he plans to “modernize” the STCA, possibly through the implementation of “biometric data” and other mechanisms that can better support information sharing between the two countries. While the Minister has stated that no formal negotiations of the STCA are underway, he has stressed that dialogue with the U.S. is ongoing.

The Conservative Party of Canada has also called for changes to the STCA, however, Michelle Rempel, the Conservative immigration critic, has asked that the government “close loopholes” in the STCA that allow refugee claimants to enter Canada through unofficial border points. She suggests that gaps in the current agreement have resulted in the past year’s increase in irregular border crossings, because refugees know that if they can arrive in Canada outside a designated border point then their claim can be heard. The Conservatives hope that by designating the entire Canada-U.S. border an official point of entry, refugees will request protection via regular channels instead – and thus many of them will be immediately denied entry.

The New Democratic Party, on the other hand, has long called on the government to suspend the STCA. In their view, the policy creates barriers to safety by not allowing most refugee claimants to present their appeal directly at the border. Jenny Kwan, the NDP immigration critic, has continuously cited cases of refugees who have lost “life and limb” in their attempt to enter Canada from the U.S. She maintains that the STCA puts refugee claimants at risk, encourages desperate and dangerous journeys, and fails to provide claimants with access to Canada’s refugee protection. By suspending the agreement, the NDP believes that refugees will be able to safely apply for asylum at official border points.

And there lies the very issue at hand: because refugee claimants are unable to seek asylum at official Canadian border crossings, or receive fair processing in the U.S., they are forced to arrive in Canada irregularly. When this occurs, evidence shows that refugees are susceptible to the use of dangerous channels such as smuggling networks. So while Conservatives would like to see stricter border controls enforced, doing so would only serve to put refugees at risk. If the objective is to deter irregular border crossings, an effective strategy must remove incentives for doing so, not escalate potential dangers.

So while they express varying solutions, all parties point to a common reality: the STCA is failing to address current trends in Canada’s refugee system. The Liberals suggest a few cautious updates, the Conservatives argue for an expanded application, and the NDP call for an outright suspension. In each case, it is apparent that something must be done to adequately respond to the increased flow of refugee claimants arriving in Canada from the U.S.

Is there a better alternative?

CPJ believes that Canada must abide by our international commitments, as signatories to the UNHCR Convention and Declaration. Canada should provide all refugee claimants who arrive on our shores with the opportunity to present their case. The best approach to uphold the rights of refugees, control migration flows, and live up to our UN obligations is to rescind the STCA to allow refugees to make their claim at official border points.

Canada and refugee claimants are best served when our refugee process is fair, fast, and factual. Nations all over the globe are facing larger migration flows than ever before. But even with these increased movements, Canada is one of the least-affected countries. We’re not facing a refugee crisis. Through a forward-thinking approach, our system could effectively meet the current demands. Canada can immediately invest more resources to face this long-term challenge. By improving our system now –  prioritizing increased emergency shelter spaces, appointing more officials, streamlining refugee determination procedures, and shortening the backlog – Canada can respond in a just and humane manner.

Canada has been a global leader in welcoming refugees for decades. This is due in large part to a population that is happy to welcome refugees into our communities.According to the Final Text of the Safe Third Country Agreement, the agreement was adopted in part to “strengthen the integrity of [refugee protection] and the public support on which it depends.” But if no one’s happy with the current state of affairs, if the optics of irregular border crossings continue to portray refugees in a negative light, then no one wins. What’s more, refugees are the ones that will suffer in the end. What will define Canada’s refugee program moving forward is how earnestly we esteem and uphold the protection of refugees. Taking action to rescind the STCA is the best way forward.

Raise your voice to see the Safe Third Country Agreement rescinded once and for all.

Download the full resource (PDF)

Download the 6-page summary (PDF)

Download the draft letter (DOC)

(c) 2015 Library of Parliament / Martin Lipman

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