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One of the key areas in which the Trudeau government has differentiated itself from its Conservative predecessor is refugee policy.

The Harper government cut health care for refugees, demonized certain refugee groups, politicized appointments to the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), and brought in a series of punitive so-called reforms to the refugee system the main intent of which was to reduce the number of refugees who reach Canada and make it harder for those who do get here to stay.

Justin Trudeau promised to change the channel on all that, starting with a bold commitment to bring in thousands of Syrian refugees. But the openly anti-refugee Trump regime south of the border has thrown a spanner in the works. That’s because Canada has a safe third country agreement with the United States. Once asylum seekers have made refugee claims in Canada they can’t try the U.S., and vice versa. The purpose is to prevent refugee claimants from shopping around — which might be a legitimate aim if both countries were equally safe for refugees.

That may have been true when Obama was president, or even George W. Bush. It is patently not true today. Given the fact that a recent Trump executive order suspended admission of all refugees to the U.S., and banned everybody from seven predominantly Muslim countries — be they asylum seekers, would-be immigrants or even just visitors — those seeking refugee status who are now in the U.S. have the full right to feel fear. Many of those folks heard the Canadian prime minister’s tweeted words of welcome to this country, and they want to take him up on his offer. If, however, they try to get into Canada at an official border crossing they will be sent back. When, on the other hand, they simply cross an open field and enter Canada where there is no border station, they can legally claim refugee status, and stay for as long as it takes for the IRB to determine their cases.

Canada’s view, and that of the Geneva Convention on Refugees which we signed decades ago, is that once potential refugees are on Canadian soil — however they got here — they are entitled to Canada’s full protection. The problem for refugees who try to enter at official border crossings is that until they are allowed into this country they are still, officially, on American soil. Thus, the safe third country agreement deems they must be turned away.

If Canada were to revoke safe third country status for the U.S., frightened and desperate asylum seekers would be able to come here without potentially endangering their lives and well-being. But the Trudeau government is not interested in provoking the Donald. The Liberals do not think President Trump would appreciate Canada’s labelling his country as unsafe. And so they are trying to argue that the safe third country agreement still works as it ought to. Here, for example, is what the new Immigration and Refugees Minister Ahmed Hussen told reporters on Tuesday:

“The Safe Third Country Agreement has been a really important tool in managing the asylum claims within both countries. It is a principle endorsed by the United Nations because we can’t encourage people to asylum shop … The domestic asylum system in the United States continues to meet international obligations with respect to access to hearings and so on, so the Safe Third Country Agreement continues to apply.”

Trudeau says economy and human rights must be balanced

While it may be theoretically possible that non-political government officials in the United States are continuing to operate their asylum system in strict accord with the U.S.’s international obligations, anyone watching what is happening there would have to harbour serious reservations. The NDP does not believe the U.S. under Trump qualifies as a safe country. Nor do the Canadian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International. One suspects that the Trudeau government privately shares that view.

Indeed, if our neighbour to the south were not the world’s domineering economic behemoth the Canadian government might quite happily abrogate the safe third country agreement. As it stands, Canada’s pro-refugee prime minister says, these days, he has to worry as much about the economy as he does about  human rights, especially the human rights of people who do not live in Canada. In response to a question in the House from the NDP’s Jenny Kwan, the PM put it this way:

“Canadians expect their government to do two things in regards to the United States and the world. We will stand up for Canadian values and defend the principles that have made this country strong, free and great, and at the same time, we will work to ensure the protection of Canadian jobs, opportunities for growth, and the success of our small and large businesses.”

A bit later, speaking in French, Trudeau castigated the NDP, which, as he put it, “used to defend the rights of workers,” for its willingness to “throw principles that protect jobs and create a good future for Canadian families out the window …”

Politically, the prime minister might be on solid ground. The average Canadian might be loath to risk antagonizing the current, mercurial U.S. president. Indeed, there is a significant portion of Canadian opinion that is not too keen on welcoming refugees in any great numbers, especially from Muslim countries. The Kellie Leitches of this country have a greater following than many of us might imagine. Nor is the media, in general, prodding the government to take a harder line with Trump.

And so the human rights community, which felt such affinity with Justin Trudeau when he swept Stephen Harper’s passive-aggressive government out of office, is finding itself, once again, in opposition. The NDP, for its part, has historically nurtured a strong connection to the world of activists and NGOs, and is quite happy to act as their voice in Parliament. The hard question is: Would any Canadian party in power have the temerity, the chutzpah, to take on the fearsome Trump regime? 

Image: Twitter/realDonaldTrump

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...