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A group of Haitians wait to cross the U.S.-Canada border into Quebec from New York in late August. Advocates decried a Nov. 20 decision by Elaine Duke, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, to end a program allowing 50,000 Haitian nationals to remain in the U.S. on July 22, 2019. CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Advocates to keep up battle against refugee agreement

  • September 2, 2020

The federal government’s decision to appeal a court ruling that puts an international refugee agreement with the United States at risk is disappointing but not surprising to refugee advocacy and church groups that have long sought to have the Safe Third Country Agreement scuttled.

A federal court agreed with a coalition of social justice and church organizations in July that the Canada-United States agreement — in effect since 2004 — requiring refugees entering Canada along the southern border must first seek asylum in the United States violates Canada’s Charter of Rights. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said Aug. 21 the government must appeal the decision to bring clarity to Canada’s refugee asylum system as it relates to the United States.

“There are important legal principles to be determined in this case, and it is the responsibility of the Government of Canada to appeal to ensure clarity on the legal framework governing asylum law,” Blair said in a statement.

Refugee advocates and church groups are heartened a federal judge took their concerns about upholding human rights at the border to heart but are disappointed the Canadian government is trying to quash the ruling. They vow to continue to argue for the end of the agreement.

“Christians and those from other faith communities see welcoming the stranger as a key tenet of their faith,” said Peter Noteboom, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, which includes the Canadian bishops’ conference and has been at the forefront in calling for an end to the agreement.

After the July ruling, which gives the government six months to react, a coalition including the Canadian Council of Churches, Canadian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International called on the federal government to immediately scrap the agreement.

“Canada should not continue to be complicit in these deeply troubling human rights violations for another day, let alone for six months,” the refugee rights coalition said.

The decision to appeal comes as no surprise to those who follow the courts and government. Lawyer Michael Barutciski of Toronto’s York University, who previously held a fellowship in law at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre, said it is “understandable” in recent years since Donald Trump was elected president that concerns about refugee policies in the United States and how that affects the asylum agreement between Canada and the U.S. would grow, but it is important the federal government challenge the court ruling.

He said an appeal “would at least give Canadians a clearer picture of all the rights and obligations involved when co-operating with our continental partners on refugee protection,” he said.

Blair said the government is trying to respect its international obligations regarding a shared border and will continue to welcome those fleeing persecution in their homelands.

“Canada has a long and proud tradition of providing protection to those who need it most by offering refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people, and the Government of Canada remains firmly committed to upholding a compassionate, fair and orderly refugee protection system. The STCA remains a comprehensive vehicle to help accomplish that,” Blair said.

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