Scrap safe country pact with U.S., advocates and professors urge Ottawa

A longtime Winnipeg human rights and immigration advocate is joining the growing chorus of voices demanding the federal government dump its Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.

Canadian law profs say U.S. is no longer safe for refugees and refugee ban reflects bigotry, xenophobia

The U.S. is no longer safe for refugees and reflects 'the very bigotry, xenophobia and nativist fear-mongering' that the Safe Third Country Agreement was designed to counteract, states an open letter to Canada's immigration minister. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

A longtime Winnipeg human rights and immigration advocate is joining the growing chorus of voices demanding the federal government dump its Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.

Under the agreement, which came into effect in 2004, individuals seeking protection must make a claim in the first country they arrive in — either Canada or the U.S.

That requires Canada to send back to the U.S. any claimants entering Canada via its land border with the U.S., based on the premise that the U.S. is a safe country in which they can make their asylum claim.

"I don't want border security people sending people into danger in the United States. It's obvious [asylum seekers] are not going to be processed there anymore," said Marty Dolin, who spent more than two decades as head of Welcome Place, Manitoba's largest refugee-settlement agency.

"They're going to be jailed or worse."

U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order last Friday that restricts travel from seven Muslim countries for 90 days, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Trump has insisted the travel restrictions are critical to preventing terrorist attacks, though no immigrant from any of those countries has committed a fatal act of terror on U.S. soil.

Dolin wants Canada to order border security agents to refuse to send anyone back to the U.S.

"Anybody who's coming here should be entitled to be processed according to Canadian standards and according to Canadian rules, not dumped back into the United States where they'd be in serious danger these days," he said. He urged the public to write letters to their MPs and Prime Minister Trudeau.

Dolin's sentiments are strongly echoed in an open letter sent to federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen and signed by more than 200 law professors across the country.

'Nativist fear-mongering'

The letter says Trump's order demonstrates the U.S. is no longer safe for refugees and reflects "the very bigotry, xenophobia and nativist fear-mongering that the international refugee regime was designed to counteract.

"We condemn these actions and statements in the strongest possible terms," the letter states, adding that the "chaotic, inconsistent and arbitrary" administration of the ban at the border has exposed refugees to more risk.

The letter cites concern over Trump's suggestion that he is open to considering the use of torture.

The actions and statements made by Trump and his administration are inconsistent with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention Against Torture, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and many other international human rights instruments, the letter states. 

Karen Busby, a professor in the University of Manitoba's faculty of law and the academic director of the Centre for Human Rights Research, was one of eight professors from the U of M who signed the letter. "Many would argue that the U.S. already, prior to Trump, was a place that wasn't that safe for asylum seekers, and of course now, given the position that the government has taken very strongly against asylum seekers, it's become an even less safe place for them," she said.

U of M law professor Shauna Labman also signed the letter. Labman specializes in refugee and immigration law and served as consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in India.

She said the realities of international travel mean most refugee claimants have easier access to the U.S. than they do to Canada.

"One of the concerns is that the Safe Third Country agreement encourages people not to appear at the border, encourages them to come illegally, she said. "That's where we saw Yahya Samatar swim across the river, that's where we've seen these men from Ghana cross in the cold winter and get frostbite."

Others who have called for the agreement to be scrapped or reworked include Amnesty International, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the federal New Democratic Party.

The NDP has also called on the Trudeau government to work with partners around the world to deal with the sudden shortfall in refugee resettlement.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Montreal-based Canadian Council of Refugees, said that suspending the safe-country agreement would also mean people would be able to make a refugee claim without risking their lives scrambling across the border in secret and cutting through snowy fields in frigid temperatures.

That has been the case in Manitoba, where the number of asylum seekers has soared.

In the past three months, Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council staff have met with more than 80 applicants looking to make refugee claims. The normal number for an entire year is 50 to 60.

On Christmas Eve, two refugees from Ghana were hospitalized in Winnipeg with frostbite after getting lost on Highway 75, near the Canada-U.S. border at Emerson.

"We could put an end to the people crossing the border irregularly and putting their life and limbs at risk in frigid temperatures. So it would be safer for everybody," Dench said.

"It would also mean we would be secure that we weren't sending people back to the U.S. knowing that the situation in the U.S. is very unclear and that we may be violating our international obligations.

"If the U.S. is not going to protect them and they end up being sent back to face persecution we are also sharing in a guilt for having sent them back to persecution."