Canada June 26, 2018

Safe Third Country Agreement challenged in Parliament, courts 

By Deborah Gyapong

A Haitian man talks with an RCMP officer while waiting to cross the U.S.-Canada border into Quebec last August. (CNS photo/Christinne Muschi, Reuters)

OTTAWA (CCN)—The Safe Third Country Agreement faces an important test this summer as political opponents keep an eye on the number of asylum seekers using irregular border crossings.

Meanwhile, a federal court challenge of the Agreement as a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms mounted by the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches, and Amnesty International is working its way through the courts.

In 2017, the RCMP intercepted more than 20,000 people crossing the border without going through normal ports of entry. The Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenships shows the RCMP have intercepted 9,481 people this year through May 2018, mostly at the Roxham Road entry into Quebec.

“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. Because it was set up at a time when people would go to a port of entry and make an asylum claim. That's not the way it's happening anymore.”

The New Democrats, however, want the agreement rescinded because of the treatment of migrants by the American administration. They hammered the government over reports of parents being separated from children at the American border with Mexico due to U.S. President Trump’s zero tolerance policy for illegal border crossings.

“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.

“Beyond talking points, if he is prepared to condemn what is happening in the United States, if he is prepared to say that that situation is unacceptable, will he now say that the country that is treating people that way is no longer a safe third country for refugees?”

While the Liberals have said they are monitoring the U.S. situation and working with the Americans on updating the STCA, the issue of migrants and asylum seekers is likely to be one brought up with Members of Parliament as they attend events in their ridings over the summer.

Though Trump has since signed an executive order keeping families together, the zero tolerance policy remains, and families are likely to be deported together, possibly without a chance for a hearing. The United States is also no longer giving asylum to those fearing gender-based violence or gang violence.

Some of the pressure on politicians will come from church groups and refugee advocates.

“The United States is not safe for all refugees and it never has been,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR).The CCR has been opposed to the agreement since before it came into effect in 2004, she said.

The Safe Third Country Agreement was meant to stop so-called asylum shopping, requiring asylum seekers to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach.

Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) released a report in mid June that said the Agreement was “designed to restrict access to Canada’s refugee system.”

“Prior to the implementation of the STCA in 2004, refugee claimants from the U.S. were able to simply present their case at a Canada-U.S. Port of Entry,” CPJ’s report said. “Now, in order to be considered for protection, most refugees are forced to take sometimes perilous journeys to have their cases heard in Canada.”

“This has put them at risk and resulted in irregular border crossings, eroding public confidence in Canada's refugee system,” CPJ said. “By rescinding the STCA, Canada will allow refugees from the U.S. to once again have access to protection in Canada. This will greatly reduce irregular border crossings, restore public confidence in Canada’s refugee system, and uphold the rights of each individual refugee.”

“A lot of people in Mexico and Central America are fleeing criminal gangs,” said Dench. “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.”

Dench noted the Trudeau government’s stand is “incompatible with the present government’s commitment to feminist approaches.”

While some commentators say the Safe Third Country Agreement is keeping an even bigger flow of asylum seekers from Canada’s doors, Dench believes it has the opposite effect.

“If the agreement was suspended then it would allow claimants to arrive more evenly across the country,” she said. “It would make it easier for the claimants and the welcoming communities.”

“There are always side effects when the Canadian government tries to put up barriers to stop refugees,” she said, noting extra barriers, more visa documents and checks “create business for smugglers.”

“When governments deliberately or otherwise adopt notions that bar legal routes to refugees and other vulnerable migrants, they force them into situations that criminalize them, and force them into situations where they are breaking the rules,” Dench said. “Governments need to take responsibility for making sure there are viable, accessible ways for people who are desperate to make a refugee claim.”

“They are blocking the front door and one of the side effects of that is it can undermine public support, by forcing people to do something labeled irregular or even illegal,” she said. “Because that’s the only door that’s been left open to people who are desperate and need protection.”

A spokeswoman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Beatrice Fenelon, pointed out numbers of asylum seekers crossing at Roxham Road were down in May compared with April figures

“Border intercepts decreased in Quebec by about 28 per cent in May compared to April, from 2,479 to 1,775,” said Fenelon. ”Numbers also decreased by 28 per cent in Manitoba from 50 to 36.”

Last year, asylum seekers crossing irregularly into Quebec were predominantly Haitians whose permission to stay in the United States after the 2010 earthquake was about to expire. This year border crossers are predominantly Nigerians who obtain a visa to enter the United States, then make their way to Canada.

“We cannot speculate on the reason behind the reduction in the number of asylum claims in May or any possible future trends,” said Fenelon. “We can say, however, that the Government of Canada continues to expand its overall outreach efforts to inform people and provide the facts about Canada’s asylum system by working closely with our missions in the U.S., by engaging with communities in the U.S., and issuing messages on social media channels in both Canada and the U.S. to provide accurate information.” 
“Our outreach campaign aims to reach potential migrant communities in the U.S. to ensure they understand Canadian immigration laws and the consequences of crossing our border irregularly,” she said.

“In addition, a Canadian official has been sent to work with U.S. visa officials in Lagos on three separate occasions,” Fenelon said. “At the highest levels, both Canada and the United States have reaffirmed their determination to work together to combat abuse of U.S. travel documents. This is part of the mutual long term cooperation between USA and Canada to protect our borders.”

Fenelon said Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen met with Nigerian officials last month “who agreed to support Canada’s efforts to dispel myths around irregular migration.”