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Trudeau government likely to widen, not rescind, Safe Third Country Agreement

Twitter photo by @CanadianPM

The Trudeau government is set to begin talks with the Trump administration to amend (read: worsen) a controversial border agreement.

Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction Minister Bill Blair and United States Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen could soon begin discussions to renegotiate the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement.

The Globe and Mail has explained, "The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States, signed in the wake of the September 11 attacks, means that with few exceptions, refugee claimants must make their claim in the first safe country they arrive in. That means virtually all asylum seekers attempting to enter Canada through a U.S. port of entry will be turned away."

But significantly the article adds that "because Canada is a signatory of the United Nations' 1951 Refugee Convention, asylum seekers entering the country between border points are not automatically deported and may make asylum claims."

In other words, the agreement, reached by then-Liberal prime minister Paul Martin and then-U.S. president George W. Bush, does not cover asylum-seekers who cross through unguarded sections of the Canada-U.S. border.

The Canada Border Services Agency says that 32,173 people crossed the border into Canada from the U.S. irregularly between April 2017 and August 2018.

The Globe and Mail has reported, "Overwhelmed by the numbers, the [Immigration and Refugee Board] has managed to finalize only 15 per cent of the 27,674 asylum claims made by people who illegally [their term] entered Quebec between February, 2017, and June, 2018. Data from the IRB show that less than half of those whose claims were completed -- 1,885 -- were accepted as legitimate refugees."

That article adds, "Canada-wide, the [Canada Border Services Agency] said it has deported 398 who crossed into Canada illegally in the same time period. Mr. Blair said he is working with the CBSA to improve the agency's ability to deport rejected asylum seekers in a timely way."

It also notes, "Under a 1985 Supreme Court decision, all refugee claimants on Canadian soil are entitled to an oral hearing." The wait time for an oral hearing now stands at about 20 months. The federal government is hiring more adjudicators to speed up that wait time.

In April, Reuters reported, "Canada wants the [Safe Third Country] agreement rewritten to apply to the entire border. ...'We'd like to be able to get [the United States] to agree that we can, if somebody comes across, we just send them back', [a Canadian official with knowledge of the discussions] told Reuters, adding Canada had raised the issue 'at least a dozen' times since."

Expanding rather than rescinding the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States is the wrong approach.

Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, No One Is Illegal, the federal New Democratic Party, the Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, and more than 200 law professors have all called for the agreement to be scrapped.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has refused this demand.

Trudeau addressed the United Nations General Assembly on September 24, and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland will give Canada's General Assembly keynote address on September 29.

While Trudeau is seeking a seat for Canada on the United Nations Security Council in 2021-22, it's not clear how the government is reconciling its proposal to widen the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement with its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention overseen by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.

In her book Undoing Border Imperialism, author-activist Harsha Walia highlights that the foreign policies of northern countries (including 'free trade', wars, and climate change) create pressures that lead to forced migration and that their militarized borders then further punish migrants seeking safety from those situations.

Image: Twitter

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