U.S.-Canada pact could split kids from families fleeing to Canada: refugee group

A national organization that advocates for refugees wants Canada to scrap a controversial pact with the United States it says will separate families who are fleeing to the Canadian border in search of a new life.

Safe Third Country Agreement is meant to prevent asylum-shopping

A girl from a Syrian family is put into an RCMP vehicle after crossing the border into Quebec on foot in subzero temperatures early Saturday morning. (Pascal Robidas/Radio-Canada)

A national organization that advocates for refugees wants Canada to scrap a controversial pact with the United States it says will separate families who are fleeing to the Canadian border in search of a new life.

The 2004 Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement allows refugee claimants coming from the United States to enter Canada under a few circumstances, including if the claimant is an unaccompanied minor or has a relative in Canada.

The agreement means if a parent comes to the border with a child and wants to enter Canada but doesn't have a relative themselves in the country, the child may enter but the parent may not.

"It separates children from their parents," said Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

"So you have a family that's split where the kids enter and the mother does not," Dench said.

"It seems such a complete nonsense for Canada to be imposing this separation, like what on Earth are we gaining?"

Dench said she knows of cases at Canadian border crossings where kids have been separated from their parents including a 16-year-old Syrian girl who, she said, still hasn't found her family.

"She was absolutely desperate. It was (a) very difficult situation because she was very traumatized by the fact of having fled and then to be here in Canada on her own with her parents over the border in the United States."

Families entered Canada by foot Saturday

On Saturday, in the wee hours of the morning, at least 21 asylum-seekers — including a family with children — made their way into Manitoba on foot near the Emerson border.

A Syrian family of three also made their way into Hemmingford, Que. the same morning by crossing into the country through the woods — a moment captured on camera.

Syrian family crosses border at Hemmingford

5 years ago
Duration 0:59
The number of asylum-seekers entering Quebec illegally from the United States has surged in the past few months.

Manitoba RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel said Mounties took 21 people into custody for illegally crossing the border near Emerson on Saturday.

She said all asked to make refugee claims and were taken to meet with the Canada Border Services Agency to make the claims.

'Complete nonsense'

Dench said the Third Safe Country Agreement, which requires asylum-seekers to make a refugee claim in the first country they arrive in — either the United States or Canada — encourages refugees to take desperate measures, including sneaking across the border to make their claims.

It's meant to prevent refugee claimants from asylum-shopping by forcing them to make a refugee application in the first safe country they arrive in.

The agreement, however, has come under heavy public fire from refugee and newcomer advocates, lawyers and law students, who argue the agreement should be scrapped in light of U.S. President Donald Trump's presidency.

They argue the U.S. is no longer a safe country for refugees.

CBC News has asked for comment from Minister of Immigration Ahmed Hussen, but has yet to hear back.

The minister has indicated the agreement will remain untouched.

Why asylum seekers risk their lives sneaking into Canada

5 years ago
Duration 1:42
CBC's Teghan Beaudette looks at why refugee claimants are risking their lives in freezing temperatures or on marathon swims to sneak into Canada.


​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email: