Current immigration developments in the United States call for a closer look at the place of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) in Canada’s refugee policy. The United States’ restrictive executive orders on immigration and deportation raids have raised much concern among immigration and refugee advocates, and fear in refugees and asylum seekers. As immigration tensions rise in the United States, many refugees set their eyes on Canada. Thus, it is important to know what the STCA means for refugees who may seek refugee in Canada from the United States.
What is the Safe Third Country Agreement?
The STCA refers to a policy brought into force by Canada and the United States in 2004, to regulate refugee mobility in both countries. The agreement allows refugees Canada and the US to regard each other as safe for refugees and asylum claimants. The United States is the only country Canada has designated as a “safe country” under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Canada trusts that the U.S. government can make fair determinations on each asylum cases received. Therefore, refugees who claim asylum in the U.S. cannot do so in Canada, except in certain cases.
Why was the Safe Third Country Agreement instituted?
According to the signatories, the STCA was established to maintain the integrity and efficiency of the asylum and refugee system in Canada and the United States. The government alleges that the agreement ensures predictability and a firmer control over asylum cases. The idea is that it would be difficult to regulate cases of illegal border crossing, if asylum seekers do not go through the proper routes to file their applications. The government holds that illegal immigration may disadvantage immigrants and refugees who go through the legal, and sometimes arduous, refugee determination process.
Other proponents of the STCA claim that the agreement prevents “queue-jumping” among refugees, especially in this period of heightened uncertainty and fear among refugee communities in the U.S. The main fear is that some asylum seekers may take advantage of the current political situation to obtain refugee status in Canada. This fear finds its roots in the contention over whether asylum seekers can fully justify that their safety will be under threat if sent back to their home country.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) does not favour suspending or repealing the STCA. IRCC stated that “the STCA remains an important tool for Canada and the U.S. to work together on the orderly handling of refugee claims.” The government maintains that illegal crossings are still prohibited, as the United States still has a seemingly fair asylum evaluation system.
If the STCA ensures efficiency in asylum assessments, why do some call for its revocation?
Since it came into effect into 2004, the STCA has faced many (legal challenges). In 2006, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees, and the Canadian Council of Churches challenged the designation of the U.S. as a safe country for refugees. The case suffered a setback when the Supreme Court declined to hear it. A lack of substantial evidence of the STCA’s adverse impact on asylum seekers also contributed to the court’s decision.
In February 2017, about twenty-two Canadian law schools began compiling information to be used to challenge the STCA in court again. Many refugee advocates hope that with more substantial evidence of the STCA’s impact on asylum seekers and refuges, the chances of a legal victory will be higher than in 2006.
Citizens for Public Justice, Amnesty International, The Quebec Association of International Lawyers, and the BC Civil Liberties Association are among many organizations that have called on the government to revisit the place of the STCA in Canada’s asylum program.
Refugee advocates in Canada call for the suspension or revocation of the STCA because they fear the United States may not longer be safe for refugees. They argue that the U.S. government’s recent restrictive executive order on immigration and refugees is enough reason to suggest that the country may be unsafe for refugees. The executive order, (which may critics see as constituting a travel ban), places a 120-day admission moratorium on all refugee applications.
Refugee advocates condemn the executive order because it excludes refugees from access to safety in the United States. They note that refugees already in the U.S. also face fears of uncertainty, because of threats of deportation and detention.
Although the Canadian government notes that the United States still meets all criteria for the STCA (e.g. a good human rights record), refugee advocates argue that this is more rhetorical than realistic. They raise human rights concerns over the impact of the travel ban on refugees and asylum seekers. The societal anti-immigration rhetoric the executive order engenders raises fears over refugees’ human rights and safety. There have been many recorded cases of xenophobia and racism against refugees and migrants who are visible minorities.
Refugee advocates are very concerned that the STCA does not allow for easier access for asylum seekers or refugees who may choose to find refuge in Canada, a country many consider to be welcoming and hospitable.
What is CPJ doing to raise awareness on this issue?
CPJ has long believed that the Safe Third Country Agreement conflicts with Canada’s position on non-discrimination and equality. It does not give asylum seekers the opportunity for a fair hearing on their cases in Canada.
Canada and the United States do not share the same principles on the determination of asylum cases. Although they are not covered under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, asylum seekers who are victims of gender-based violence are more likely to receive a fair hearing in Canada than in the United States.
Thus, such asylum seekers who arrive in Canada from the U.S. will be denied a hearing at the border, because the STCA is very restrictive on the kinds of cases that can be assessed again, once denied by the United States.
CPJ also believes the United States’ immigration policy discriminates against refugees on a religious and national identity basis. Thus, Canada can no longer rely on the United States to provide refugee claimants with a fair hearing on their asylum cases.
CPJ has written to the Minister, asking him to revoke the STCA. CPJ is currently supporting the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s campaign calling for a review of the STCA. The campaign enjoins members of the public to engage with politicians on this issue, and secondly, to consider supporting refugee resettlement, either by becoming sponsors or aiding resettled refugees. You can be a part of this initiative too. For more information, visit https://cpj.ca/take-action-refugee-rights
 For a list of all the exceptions, see http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/department/laws-policy/menu-safethird.asp