A woman and her family from Sudan is taken into custody by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer after arriving Feb.12 by taxi and walking across the U.S.-Canada border into Quebec. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Churches ramp up pressure to suspend Safe Third Country Agreement

  • February 23, 2017

As the flood of refugees slipping across the Canada-U.S. border continues, churches are stepping up their calls for the government to suspend Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.

“The U.S.A. does not properly protect the rights of refugee claimants,” said Jesuit Refugee Service country director for Canada Norbert Piché.

The Safe Third Country Agreement assumes that refugees who first land in the U.S. can safely make a claim for asylum and receive a fair, impartial hearing to determine their status because, like Canada, the U.S. is a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention and Protocol Regarding the Status of Refugees. The Kino Border Initiative told The Catholic Register U.S. Immigration officials and border guards are sending people back across the Mexican border before they have an opportunity to make an asylum claim.

“Asylum isn’t necessarily accessible in the U.S.,” Kino Border Initiative spokesperson Joanna Williams said from Nogales, New Mexico. “You might have seen some of the news about the U.S. government just turning them away altogether in violation of international law.”

The Kino Border Initiative is part of a Jesuit network that helps migrants in Central America, Mexico and the U.S.

Suspending or getting rid of the Safe Third Country Agreement would put an end to irregular border crossings which have spiked along unguarded sections of the border in Manitoba and Quebec, Piché said.

“If Canada withdrew from the Safe Third Country Agreement, refugee claimants could arrive at regular border crossings and claim refugee status without putting their lives at risk, as they are doing now,” he said in an email.

The flood of recent border crossings is “a situation the Government of Canada takes seriously,” an Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship spokesperson told The Catholic Register in an email.

“The STCA (Safe Third Country Agreement) remains an important tool for Canada and the U.S. to work together on the orderly handling of refugee claims.”

In Quebec, which has seen the largest number of illegal border crossings, there has been a 250-per-cent increase in refugees arriving across the land border, with 2,527 claims for asylum in 2016, compared with 1,054 in 2015. In January, 452 people made claims in Quebec compared with 137 in January 2016, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.

This week, the Christian Reformed Church in North America joined the chorus of churches demanding Canada scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement.

“The influx of refugees from the U.S. to Canada in recent weeks, sometimes risking their lives to make the journey, demonstrates that due to recent refugee policy developments in the U.S., such as the recent Executive Order, not all refugees feel safe there,” Reformed Church leaders said in a message to their faithful on both sides of the border.

At press time the McClatchy newspapers in the U.S. were reporting that lawyers working for President Donald Trump’s administration were debating how far a new executive order limiting refugees from the Muslim world could go after the courts blocked his original order banning migrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.

The Safe Third Country Agreement is not the only concern the Council of Churches has about how refugees are faring in Canada. In a letter to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen, general secretary Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton, also asked that the government lift its cap on the number of refugees who may be privately sponsored. Canada will only accept 1,000 applications from private sponsorship groups this year to resettle Syrian refugees.

Hamilton also complained about how processing for privately sponsored refugees has slowed down and asks Hussen how the government is working to expedite the process.

So far the CCC has received no reply from Hussen’s office.

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