Ottawa should suspend Safe Third Country Agreement: Editorial

Ottawa should suspend Safe Third Country Agreement: Editorial

The federal government should heed the call of legal and human rights experts and ensure that those who cannot now count on safe haven in the U.S. can find it here.


In 2004, the Canadian and U.S. governments signed a treaty to streamline their refugee systems. The Safe Third Party Agreement dictates that most refugees who first land in the United States cannot then claim asylum in Canada, and vice versa. These refugees have already found safe haven, the thinking goes, so why allow a second system to be burdened with an unnecessary claim? It’s an efficiency explicitly premised on the assumption that each country has a fair and functioning refugee policy.

But when it comes to the U.S., that’s now a bad assumption, even after an appeals court upheld the suspension of President Donald Trump’s travel ban on Thursday. In the fog surrounding Trump’s three executive orders on immigration, what is clear is that in the coming months those in desperate need of asylum will remain in danger and in limbo. That’s why many legal and human rights experts are calling on Canada to suspend the agreement. As the Star has argued before, Ottawa has a moral obligation to do so immediately.

The case for suspension is put forward obliquely but with particular force in a new report out of the Harvard University Law School. The authors chronicle the grave potential consequences of Trump’s three executive orders on immigration: the large-scale detention of asylum seekers, the removal of refugees without due process, the empowering of local officials to detain individuals on “mere suspicion” of immigration violations, the discrimination based on asylum seekers’ religion and nationality, among other inhuman and arguably unconstitutional outcomes.

“We are not going to tell the Canadian government what to do,” the authors write, “but the finding that the U.S. is safe is wrong and unfounded, and should be blown out of the water.”

Now is the time. Over the last year, as the world watched Trump’s unlikely political rise and the anti-immigrant sentiment that fuelled it, the number of refugee claimants illegally crossing the U.S. border into Canada skyrocketed. In Quebec alone, the number of intercepted migrants reached 1,280 in 2016, three times more than in the previous year.

Since Trump took office, the fears of many have been realized and Canadian border officials have witnessed another surge of illegal crossings. Just last weekend, 22 asylum seekers traversed the snowy border into Emerson, Man., some of whom eventually called 911 due to the cold. Among them was a group from Somalia, one of the countries barred from entering the U.S. by Trump’s executive order.

“These are the expected consequences when Canada is closing its front door to asylum seekers via the U.S. and not [letting] them in lawfully,” Osgoode Hall law professor Sean Rehaag told the Star this week. “They cannot go through the port of entry and must come through irregular means. Canada needs to create a safe, lawful way for people to come.”

As the authors of the Harvard report and other experts have argued, refugees have good reason to flee the United States today: it doesn’t offer them safe haven. By suspending the Safe Third Country Agreement, Ottawa would be sending the message that, at least for now, we no longer trust the U.S. refugee system. That’s a bold move, but if we no longer trust the system, what choice do we have?

If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meant what he tweeted about Canada’s commitment to openness in the wake of Trump’s travel ban, his government should ensure that those who cannot now count on safe haven in the U.S. can find it here.