Refugees seeking asylum are seen near the border in Lacolle, Quebec, Aug. 10, 2017. NS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Safe Third Country pact under increasing attack

  • July 10, 2018

OTTAWA – Storm clouds continue to gather over the controversial Safe Third Country Agreement.

Calls for Canada to revamp or rescind the Agreement it has with the United States to regulate migrant border crossers are increasing against the backdrop of an American zero-tolerance policy for unauthorized border crossings, thousands of asylum seekers crossing into Canada and a growing problem of housing refugees in Canada’s largest cities.

Meanwhile, a legal action to have the Agreement declared a violation of the Canadian charter is working its way through the courts. The challenge is being mounted by the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches and Amnesty International.

“Everyone recognizes that the circumstances of border crossing and asylum claims have changed dramatically in the last four to five years,” former Conservative cabinet minister Erin O’Toole told journalists before the House of Commons rose for a summer break June 20. “So I think it totally needs a total update. If that means throwing it out and starting from scratch, I think Canada needs to be prepared for that.”

The Agreement was implemented at a time when refugees typically entered the country at an official port of entry to make an asylum claim, O’Toole said, but “that’s not the way it’s happening anymore.”

The New Democrats want the Agreement rescinded because of the harsh treatment of migrants at U.S. borders. They hammered the government over the American policy of separating parents from children at the Mexico border due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s zero tolerance policy for illegal crossings. Trump eventually signed an executive order allowing families to stay together, but the zero tolerance policy remains. Families are likely to be deported, possibly without a hearing. 

“A safe third country means that the country with which we signed an agreement is a place where asylum seekers are treated fairly, humanely and decently,” said NDP MP Guy Caron in Question Period June 20, noting Prime Minister Trudeau had criticized the separation of migrant children from their parents. 

The Safe Third Country Agreement, signed between the U.S. and Canada in 2004, was meant to stop so-called asylum shopping by requiring refugees to seek asylum in the first safe country they reached. It meant that a migrant from Central America, for example, was turned back at the Canadian border if they had already claimed refugee status in the United States. The policy has come under fire due to allegations that the current American administration has made the U.S. an unsafe refugee destination.

“A lot of people in Mexico and Central America are fleeing criminal gangs,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR). “There are serious implications for Canada to send such people back to the U.S. Also for women fleeing domestic violence, we’re sending them back to a country that doesn’t respect these women’s rights to protection.”

In 2017, the RCMP intercepted more than 20,000 people crossing the Canada-U.S . border at unauthorized ports of entry. In the first five months of 2018, the RCMP had already intercepted 9,481 people, mostly at the Roxham Road entry into Quebec.

The influx of refugees has prompted Toronto Mayor John Tory to ask for “urgent” help from Ottawa as it deals with an overflow of migrants coming from Quebec. The city’s shelter system is housing more than 3,200 refugees, up from 459 in 2016. Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) released a report in mid June that claimed the Agreement was designed to impede refugees seeking to enter Canada. Prior to the Agreement, migrants entering Canada from the U.S. were entitled to make a claim for refugee status.

“Now, in order to be considered for protection, most refugees are forced to take sometimes perilous journeys to have their cases heard in Canada,” the report said.

Rescinding the Agreement would return the former protections refugees from the U.S. were guaranteed in Canada. 

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