Court ruling on Canada-U.S. asylum agreement a 'historic moment': Manitoba refugee advocates

A Federal Court justice ruled Wednesday that Canada's Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Safe Third Country Agreement infringes upon the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Federal Court judge

Asylum seekers cross into Canada from the United States near Emerson, Man., on Feb. 26, 2017. On Wednesday, a Federal Court justice said Canada's Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. infringes upon the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Refugee advocates in Manitoba are cautiously optimistic after a Federal Court justice ruled Canada's asylum agreement with the U.S. violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"This victory is tremendous and it is a historic moment," said Dorota Blumczynska, the executive director of the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba, and president of the Canadian Council of Refugees — one of the litigants in the case.

"But we need to ensure that the government doesn't proceed, for example, with an appeal, and that the agreement is in fact immediately suspended."

In a ruling delivered Wednesday, Federal Court Justice Ann Marie McDonald said the Safe Third Country Agreement violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms section guaranteeing "the right to life, liberty and security of the person."

The agreement recognizes both countries as "safe" countries for migrants, and requires refugee claimants to request protection in the first country they arrive in — meaning Canadian border officials can send claimants arriving at official border crossings back to the U.S.

The case was brought forward by the Canadian Council of Refugees, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council of Churches and a number of individuals.

They argued that by sending refugee claimants deemed ineligible back to the U.S., Canada exposes them to risks, including detention and possible deportation to countries where they could face further harm.

For Hani Ataan Al-Ubeady, the director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg, the discussion around the Safe Third Country Agreement brings back memories from three years ago, when large numbers of asylum seekers were crossing the border in Emerson, Man.

Even then, he felt the agreement needed revisions.

"Many people, and refugee advocates particularly, were concerned about the fact that sending people back to the United States may not be necessarily a safe place," Al-Ubeady said.

"A safe place is when people say and feel that they are safe. It's not a safe place because it is written on a piece of paper."

Blumczynska had a word of caution for those wanting to come to Canada based on Wednesday's court decision alone.

"I would strongly discourage … vulnerable refugee claimants currently in the United States to believe that this is an immediate signal to make the voyage north," she said.

Al-Ubeady agrees, and says discussions are still needed. If the Safe Third Country Agreement is amended, he thinks Canada shouldn't send failed claimants back to the U.S. to be detained.

"It would ensure that we are doing what is dignified for people's lives, and also we live up to our expectations as a welcoming country and also a country that is based on immigration," he said.

The federal government has six months to appeal the decision.

With files from Catharine Tunney