Parti Québécois wants to nix Safe Third Country Agreement amid asylum seeker boom

The leader of the Parti Québécois is calling for the suspension of the Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the United States amid a surge of migrants showing up at illegal border crossings in Quebec.

Jean-François Lisée says claimants should also be allowed to work, earn money while waiting to be processed

Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée sent a letter to both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Philippe Couillard expressing his concerns. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The leader of the Parti Québécois is calling for the suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement amid a surge of asylum seekers arriving at illegal border crossings into Quebec.

Under the agreement, the majority of migrants coming from the United States who make an asylum claim at an official border checkpoint in Canada are denied entry since the U.S. is deemed to be safe.

"The problem is that we get the impression that the border doesn't exist," Jean-François Lisée told Radio-Canada. "Without this agreement, people would show up at border crossings."

As a result of the Safe Third Country Agreement, a growing number of asylum seekers are instead arriving at unofficial crossings, such as Roxham Road in Hemmingford, Que., where they are arrested but not immediately refused entry. 

In a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Lisée said that the crisis has become a problem in Quebec and that the agreement needs to be struck down.

"It has damaging repercussions," he said. "It's time to face the facts and admit that it's not a good decision."

A group of asylum seekers walk down the street as they are escorted from their tent encampment to be processed at the Lacolle border. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Couillard said that while he thinks Lisée's proposal was made in good faith, suspending the agreement could lead to consequences and affect diplomatic relations with the United States.

"Most of all we have to ask: 'Is this a good idea?'" Couillard said Sunday. "It's not a good idea."

More than 1,000 wait to be processed

Lisée's letter comes as the province struggles to handle a growing boom of migrants fleeing from the United States and showing up at Quebec borders. As of Friday, close to 1,200 people were waiting to be processed at the Lacolle border crossing.

The PQ has also questioned Quebec's capacity to accommodate the influx of refugees, while the Coalition Avenir Québec has demanded stricter rules and claimed that the border has become a "sieve".

Members of the Canadian armed forces erect tents to house asylum seekers at the Canada-United States border in Lacolle, Que., (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Lisée added that it would be helpful if asylum seekers were granted work permits to be able to support themselves while waiting to see if the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada tribunal accepts their asylum claim.

"I think that would help," said Lisée.

Awareness campaign

In his letter, Lisée said both the federal and provincial governments urgently need to launch an awareness campaign for people heading to the borders which states "the majority of claimants will have their request rejected."

In an effort to assuage concerns about the growing number of asylum seekers, Couillard took to social media on Friday to say that there are "no guarantees" that claimants will be granted refugee status. He reiterated the same message Sunday during a policy convention.

"We are a safe haven," he said. "But the journey to have refugee status is not easy or convenient."

Officials in Canada, from Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to Public Security Minister Ralph Goodale, have also said that asylum seekers are subject to the same laws and procedures as others when it comes to their refugee claims.

Goodale has warned that irregular border crossings are not a "free ticket to stay in Canada."

With files from Radio-Canada's Mathieu Dion and the Canadian Press