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

Refugee advocates plead their case

  • November 10, 2019

OTTAWA -- Canadian churches and refugee advocates want a federal court to declare an agreement with the United States null and void, saying it is putting refugees seeking asylum in Canada at risk because the U.S. is not a safe country for them.

The court challenge, which was originally filed in 2017, started Nov. 4 in federal court in Toronto and was scheduled for five days.

The Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), of which the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is a member, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) want the court to allow refugees seeking asylum in Canada to be able to declare their intentions at all regular border crossings. For the most part, that has not been allowed since 2004 when the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement was enacted.

Since Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016, the American government has made it increasingly difficult for refugees to seek asylum in the U.S., which has led to thousands of people claiming to be refugees crossing into Canada at non-official entry points. About 45,000 people have crossed into Canada at unauthorized points in the last two years.

The applicants in the court case argue that asylum seekers should not be turned away at official entry points along the border as required under the Safe Third Country Agreement because that goes against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Canada’s legal obligations under international law.

“The Canadian Council of Churches has long advocated that every human being who is physically present in Canada has a legal right to life, liberty and security of person under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Peter Noteboom, general secretary of the CCC.

“The U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement stands in the way of guaranteeing those legal rights,” he said.

According to an Oct. 29 press release from the organizations involved in the court case, “the applicants challenge the lawfulness of Canada’s continuing reliance on the U.S. as a partner in refugee protection under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement.

“The evidence now before the Court establishes that the refugee claimants that Canada turns away at our borders are exposed to grave risks of detention and mistreatment in the U.S.,” the release said. “Withdrawing from the agreement would not only ensure that Canada meets its legal obligations, but would also allow people to present themselves in an orderly way at ports of entry, ending irregular crossings.”

In legal documents filed by the federal government in the case, the Canadian government argues the case should be dismissed because Canada considers the U.S. to be a “safe” country for refugees.

But refugee advocates claim they have no choice but to turn to the courts.

“In the absence of action on the part of Canada’s elected representatives to acknowledge the serious shortcomings of the U.S. refugee protection system, we now turn to the courts to ensure that Canada’s domestic and international legal obligations are upheld,” said Justin Mohammed, of Amnesty International.

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