National Column: Pressure on to scrap Safe Third Country Agreement

by Thomas Walkom

Pressure is building on Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to scrap or suspend a Canada-U.S.
agreement that requires most would-be refugees to apply for asylum in whichever of the two countries they arrive first. Certainly, ending the Safe Third Country Agreement would play well with Canadians horrified by the recent actions of Donald Trump. But would it make much practical difference?

That question is more difficult to answer.

The Safe Third Country Agreement dates from 2004. It was part of an effort by the Liberal government of the day to deal with so-called asylum shoppers – those refugee claimants who search for the easiest country in which to obtain sanctuary.

Under the agreement, most would-be claimants who arrive in the U.S. first must apply for refugee status in that country. Conversely, most arriving in Canada first must make their claim here.

On the Canadian side of the deal, there are exceptions for unaccompanied minors, those with relatives already in the country, those who already possess documents, such as student visas, and in some cases those who face the death penalty.

Canada, which has a more generous refugee policy, pressed hardest for the agreement. The Americans signed on only as part of a broader effort to improve border security in the wake of 9-11. They wouldn’t much care if it were killed.

From the beginning, the agreement has always been controversial. It is predicated on the idea that the U.S. and Canada treat refugee claimants in roughly the same manner. But refugee policy has always been more political in the U.S.

In the 1980s, for instance, refugees seeking sanctuary from death squads in Central American countries like Nicaragua were routinely turned down in the U.S. – in large part because Washington funded these death squads.

Organizations like the Canadian Council for Refugees opposed the agreement from the beginning. Some mounted a court challenge in 2005. That challenge ultimately failed after the Federal Court of Appeal ruled the law valid in 2008.

Trumpís decision to separate parents and children illegally entering the U.S. brought the Safe Third Party Agreement back to centre stage.

The U.S. president has since reversed himself. He will no longer separate families of illegal migrants. Instead, he wants to put parents and kids all in jail together.

But his actions have given new life to those – including the Council of Canadians and the federal New Democrats – who would draw a sharp line between Canadian and American refugee policies.

The NDP would suspend the agreement. Yet suspending or even scrapping this agreement may not make much difference.

In part, thatís because the law already contains a glaring loophole. Would-be refugees already in the U.S. cannot make asylum claims at official border crossings. But they can walk across the border illegally and make claims from the Canadian side.

Thousands have done so, particularly along the Quebec portion of the border. They are not prevented from doing so by police. In fact, the police help them.

If the thousands of South and Central Americans entering the U.S. illegally were able to make their way to the Canadian border they could presumably do the same – regardless of the status of the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Which leads to the second point: illegal migrants from Central and South America – the ones that Trump seems most determined to detain – are not heading for Canada in large numbers.

Between January and March of this year, 12,682 refugee claims from around the world were referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. The biggest single source of refugee claimants by far was Nigeria, at 3,397. As Canadian Press has reported, the majority of illegal immigrants entering Canada so far this year are Nigerians who entered the U.S. as visitors and then travelled to the Quebec border.

By contrast, only 434 Mexicans made claims. Fewer still made claims from South and Central American countries.

In short, it appears that most who cross illegally into the U.S. along its southern border want to take their chances in America – regardless of Trump.

It might make Canadians feel more virtuous if Trudeau scrapped or suspended the Safe Third Country Agreement. But it’s not clear it would change much.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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