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Canada: Why Canada should pull out of the Safe Third Country Agreement
01 March 2017

(Jesuit Refugee Service)
Canadians must not tolerate that refugee claimants, already in an extremely precarious situation, endanger their lives or their health in their journey to legitimately claim refugee status in Canada.

Montreal, 1 March 2017 - Recently in the news, two men from Ghana lost their fingers to frostbite.  They had crossed the Canadian-American border at Manitoba convinced that the United States would not grant them asylum.  That day, it was -18°C without the wind factor.  Those two men walked for hours in snow-filled fields.  They finally arrived at the highway but nobody was stopping to help them.  It was only after a long time that a trucker finally rescued them.

Why did these Ghanaians not cross the border, in a vehicle, at a border post and claim refugee status?  Quite simply, the Canadian Border Service Officers would have most likely denied them entry into Canada because of an agreement between the two countries called The Safe Third Country Agreement.

As the Canadian Council for Refugees states: “Under The Safe Third Country Agreement, the US and Canada each declared the other country safe for refugees and established the general principle that refugee claimants should make their claim in the first of these countries that they reach.  Thus, refugees who are in the US are expected to pursue their claim in the US, rather than seeking protection in Canada.  Similarly, those in Canada are expected to apply in Canada.”   However, refugee claimants who successfully cross the border irregularly may make a legitimate refugee claim.

The Safe Third Country Agreement, in effect since 2004, is a result of a political will to reduce the number of refugee claimants in Canada.  Effectively, the number of refugee claims in Canada has dropped considerably since then.  Moreover, the United States has continued to deport refugee claimants who would have had a better chance of being accepted in Canada were it not for this agreement.

Since the election of Trump, there has been a substantial increase of people crossing the border other than at an official border crossing.  This phenomenon is a clear indicator that refugee claimants do not feel safe in the United States.  In this context, many refugee rights organizations, lawyer associations, unions, and others, are demanding the suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement.  According to them, the United States is no longer a safe country for many refugees and asylum seekers.  Among those groups, we mention the Harvard Law School.  This prestigious American institution calls on the Canadian Government to suspend this agreement so that asylum seekers receive a just and equitable treatment in Canada that they can no longer get in the U.S.A.

These concerns lie within a wider global context.  For a long time, the European Union has attempted, by many different ways, to limit the number of migrants and refugees arriving at its borders who come from the Middle East and Africa.  The United States has done the same for Latin Americans, particularly Mexicans and Central Americans.  Nevertheless, migrants and refugees, spurred on by violence, poverty, desperation and a legitimate quest for security and better living conditions, will continue to find alternative routes (often through traffickers who seldom worry about their well-being) to attain their goal. Unfortunately, many die during this journey because there are fewer “regular” routes.

Canadian policies must not insidiously foster the recourse to perilous methods.  Canadians must not tolerate that refugee claimants, already in an extremely precarious situation, endanger their lives or their health in their journey to legitimately claim refugee status in Canada – a status that is recognized by international law in conventions that our country is a signatory to. 

Therefore, the Jesuit Refugee Service in Canada demands the immediate suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement.  Let us allow people, whose lives are in danger, to claim refugee status in an orderly and regular way, at a border crossing, without risk of being returned to the States.

Norbert Piché, JRS Canada Country Director

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Martina Bezzini