The Trudeau government has rejected calls to scrap an agreement that prevents asylum seekers who enter from the U.S. from seeking refuge in Canada — a move experts say ignores the reality on the ground.
Last week, President Donald Trump signed a sweeping executive order to suspend all refugee admissions for 120 days, ban entry for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia — for 90 days, and indefinitely suspend refugee admissions from Syria.
Since then, refugee advocates and immigration lawyers have been pressuring the Canadian government to scrap, or at least suspend, the Safe Third Country Agreement, which results in people being turned away at the border.
In a statement to VICE News, Citizenship and Immigration Canada pointed out that Trump’s executive order on immigration focuses on resettled refugees, like those who are brought to the U.S. from refugee camps around the world, and not asylum seekers, who arrive in the U.S. on their own.
“The [Safe Third Country Agreement] remains an important tool for Canada and the U.S. to work together on the orderly handling of refugee claims made in our countries,” the statement said. “Our government has no indication that the Executive Order has any impact on the American asylum system.”
But experts say the government is either uninformed or is overlooking how the combination of other executive orders signed by Trump will make the U.S. unsafe for refugees. The agreement is predicated on the notion that both countries are “safe” for refugees, and therefore asylum claims must be made in the first country of arrival.
“If [the US] is willing,” says Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees, to “close the door in such a dramatic way, institute discrimination on the basis of religion and identify certain nationalities that are excluded totally, it’s not reasonable to expect that that country is going to respect its obligations under international law towards the refugees you send back.”
She blames other Trump executive orders for shifting the landscape for refugees in the United States.
For example, while attention has been focused on the wall Trump wants build along the U.S.-Mexico border, that particular executive order also allows people to be detained on the mere suspicion of violating immigration law, and expedites the processing of claims from people who have been apprehended.
“The problem is if someone is arrested in U.S…. before they’ve managed to start their claim, they’re forced into a very quick, expedited removal,” said Andrew Brouwer, advocacy co-chair with the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. “So they’re detained and access to counsel in detention is very poor. Without a lawyer, making an asylum claim, your odds of success are minimal.”
The administration is also cracking down on cities that offer sanctuary to undocumented migrants by taking away federal grants.
The U.S.-Mexico border wall would also make it significantly harder for asylum seekers to take the common route of travelling through South America and the US to end up in Canada.
“My hope is it’s just a lack of information and when confronted with the evidence of these other changes happening in the US, [the Canadian government] will change their mind,” he said, adding that the uncertainty around how new measures will play out on the ground is a “perfectly solid reason to suspend” the agreement.
Efrat Arbel, a University of British Columbia law professor who is studying the STCA, said the government’s key consideration should be whether or not the US is indeed a safe country for refugees.
“That is what we have to be concerned with as a partner to the agreement, and we have to look at the US asylum record as a whole,” she said, adding that the refugee conventions require that laws be applied with the principle of non-discrimination.
“And we have here a clear example of the US government enforcing a patently discriminatory executive order. Whether or not it applies to refugees or asylum seekers is immaterial, it is patently discriminatory … That in and of itself is a clear indication that the US can’t be considered safe.”