Asylum agreement with U.S. to blame for woman's death near border, lawyer says

An agreement signed between Canada and the United States is to blame for the recent death of Mavis Otuteye, a presumed asylum seeker found dead less than a kilometre from the Canadian border, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer says.

Safe Third Country Agreement drives some asylum seekers to illegally cross border to reach Canada: Bashir Khan

Woman found dead near border was en route to Canada to see newborn granddaughter

CBC News Manitoba

4 years ago
A Ghanaian woman found dead near the Canada-U.S. border was on her way to see her newborn granddaughter in Toronto and had been living in the U.S. under an expired visa, CBC News has learned. 1:24

An agreement between Canada and the United States is to blame for the recent death of Mavis Otuteye, a presumed asylum seeker found dead less than a kilometre from the Canadian border, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer says.

"The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Countries Agreement, which took effect Dec. 29, 2004 … sealed her fate," said Bashir Khan on Wednesday. "I think Canadian law is to be held responsible for that woman's death — for that innocent woman's death."

Otuteye was a 57-year-old who police believe was a citizen of Ghana. Officials think she died of hypothermia last week as she made her way through Minnesota toward Canada.

Investigators in the U.S. are still looking into the death.

Winnipeg immigration lawyer Bashir Khan blames the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. for the death of a 57-year-old presumed asylum seeker. (CBC)

A patrol agent told CBC Otuteye was found in water in a ditch, alone and lacking warm clothes.

Otuteye appears to be one of the growing number of refugee claimants crossing, or attempting to cross, into Canada from the U.S. between official ports of entry.

Khan and others — including the Manitoba NDP, law students and doctors — have called on Ottawa to suspend or repeal the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Under that U.S-Canada agreement, asylum seekers must make refugee claims in the first country they reach. That means those coming into Canada from the U.S. would be turned back at the border.

Refugees are able to circumvent the rule if the cross into Canada somewhere other than a port of entry. In that case, the United Nations Refugee Convention requires Canada to hear their refugee claim.

Ottawa stands by agreement

Since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, refugees have told CBC they feel like their odds are better applying for asylum in Canada than in the U.S., even if they landed there first.

Khan believes the agreement is the principal driver behind asylum seekers trekking for kilometres through fields and ditches, in cold conditions.

From January to the end of April this year, the RCMP intercepted 477 asylum seekers in Manitoba alone, according to federal government figures.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is calling on Ottawa to take action by working with the U.S., including asking Trump to be kinder to refugees and immigrants, but stopped short of suggesting the repeal of the Safe Third Country on Wednesday.

"We need to reach out and partner with our nation to the south and work to prevent a continuation of this activity," Pallister said to reporters.
Hundreds of asylum seekers have crossed irregularly into Manitoba since January. Last week, the body of a 57-year-old woman, believed to be an asylum seeker, was found less than a kilometre away from the Canadian border in the U.S. (CBC)

The federal government has made it clear it has no plans to suspend or cancel the agreement.

A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada called it an 'important tool" for the "orderly handling of refugee claims."

"It's based on a principle supported by the UN Refugee Agency that individuals must claim asylum in the first country they arrive in," a spokesperson said in an email to CBC.

Because the U.S. asylum system has not yet changed, there is no reason to alter the Safe Third Country Agreement, said the spokesperson.

"Our government is committed to offering protection to those fleeing war and persecution. Canada's refugee system is lauded around the world for being compassionate, fair and efficient," the spokesperson said.

I think Canadian law is to be held responsible for that woman's death. For that innocent woman's death.- Bashir Khan, lawyer

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale called Otuteye's death an "awful tragedy" Wednesday and a reminder to others of the risks crossing the border between official entry points can pose.

"It is important to follow the rules and cross the border in a legal and regular manner," Goodale said Wednesday.

He called attempts like Otuteye's to enter the country illegal and unwise.

"People should not think that some back door or side door is a free ticket to get into the country," Goodale said.

Juda Strawczynski, an Toronto lawyer and president of the grassroots group Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights, said the Safe Third Country Agreement has come under scrutiny across the country in the wake of increasing numbers of asylum seekers crossing irregularly.

"What we're seeing here is new paths of migration to Canada at high risk to individuals. It's something we have not seen at this volume in recent memory or ever," Strawczynski said.

"It is something that we are aware is under review among human rights organizations and at the government levels."

There is a clause in the pact that would allow countries to suspend the agreement or back out of it, he added.

"Under article 10 of the agreement, either country can terminate on six months written notice to the other party. You can also suspend for up to three months," Strawczynski said.

with files from Brett Purdy and Karen Pauls