In The News This Week: Is It Time to Rethink the Safe Third Country Agreement?

A number of articles published this past week have focused on the Safe Third Country Agreement, and whether Canada is, and whether they should be, considering its renegotiation with the United States. If you’re interested in learning more about this, we at mPolitics have succinctly broken down the issue into comprehendible parts: (1) what the agreement is; (2) what the issues with the agreement are; and (3) suggestions and opinions on how to address these issues.

What is the Safe Third Country Agreement?

The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States is part of the U.S. – Canada Smart Border Action Plan, and came into effect in 2004. Under the agreement, refugee claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in, unless they qualify for one of the following four exceptions:

  • Family member exceptions
  • Unaccompanied minors exceptions
  • Document holder exceptions
  • Public interest exceptions

According to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), “Safe Third Country” status can only be given to countries that “respect human rights and offer a high degree of protection to asylum seekers”, and, to-date, the United States is the only designed Safe Third Country. (Government of Canada)

What is the issue with the Agreement?

The major issue with the Agreement at present is that refugees who first arrive in the United States cannot apply for asylum at official border crossings in Canada. According to many immigration lawyers, this forces asylum seekers hoping to come to Canada to cross the border illegally. Both Manitoba and Quebec have seen a significant influx of asylum seekers in 2017 and 2018, with +20,000 people illegally crossing the border in 2017, and approximately 5,000 who have done so this year (CBC). As a result, many critics and observers, including +200 law professors, have called on the Canadian government to withdraw from the pact.

What is new here?

While Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship, originally rejected calls from the legal community to withdraw from this pact, last week he announced that the Canadian government is open to the possibility of modernizing the pact, while still insisting that no “formal negotiations” with the U.S. are taking place at this stage.

While the Minister and the Liberal government have provided no indication of what potential modernizations are being discussed, a silence which opposition critics have called “political calculus”, both the Conservative Party and the NDP have offered concrete suggestions (CBC). The Conservative Party has recommended that the government designate the entire Canada/U.S. border an official crossing, and the NDP have recommended that the government suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement for 90 days. Hussen has dismissed both these recommendations as “impractical”.

Where do we go from here?

As we look ahead, recent comments from immigration lawyer Alistair Clarke (CBC) and Vicky Mochama (Toronto Star) are worth reflecting on. For Clarke, the issue with the Agreement is that it was signed during a time when both countries held similar views on refugees. It is evident that political sentiment and legislative approaches have changed significantly since then, and perhaps the Agreement should be updated to adequately account for this. For Mochama, the law simply does not reflect real life, and the unapologetic hostility toward migrants that has been communicated (and legislated) by the Trump administration. As Mochama writes, “migrants leaving the United States are telling Canada that our neighbour to the south is not a safe place for them”.

Not only is the present Agreement not working for migrants, but it is not working for the provinces of Manitoba and Quebec, nor for the security and best interests of Canadians. Whatever the “modernizations” to the Agreement will be, and it is evident that they are needed, they should be in keeping with our Canadian cultural values. I, like many of you, have been lucky enough to never have had to consider leaving my country of origin out of concern for my family’s safety. So, when we consider the plight of asylum seekers, Canada’s compassionate and welcoming cultural values should be top of mind, as Prime Minister Trudeau recently articulated (City News). We should also keep in mind that we are a country of immigrants, and that population growth is indelibly linked to our economics growth (Conference Board of Canada). As Mochama writes, “the law cannot just be a machine; it should serve human rights”.

Authored By: Emma McKay, Co-Founder & Editor, mPolitics

Asylum Claimaints
A family of asylum claimants crosses the border into Canada from the United States. Source: Paul Chiasson, The Canadian Press

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