Advocates urge protection for refugees who enter Canada via the U.S.

Canada should revisit a pact that considers the United States safe for refugees now that President Donald Trump has put a hold on allowing many of them into the United States, says the head of a prominent Canadian refugee rights organization.

The Safe Third Country Agreement bars people entering Canada via the U.S. from seeking refugee status

Protesters assemble at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City on Saturday after two Iraqi refugees were detained while trying to enter the country. (Craig Ruttle/The Associated Press)

Canada should revisit a pact that considers the United States safe for refugees now that U.S. President Donald Trump has put a hold on allowing many of them into the country, says the head of a prominent Canadian refugee rights organization.

Calling the order "frightening" and "devoid of compassion," Mitchell Goldberg, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said the Canadian government should respond to Trump's order by revisiting its Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States.

The 2004 pact restricts refugee claims from people entering Canada via its land border with the U.S. to only those with family in Canada and unaccompanied minors, among a few other exceptions.

Trump's executive order suspends the entry of Syrian refugees to the United States until his administration determines whether allowing their admission is "consistent with the national interest."

It also puts a four-month hold on the U.S. refugee program and bars anyone travelling to the U.S. from the Muslim-majority countries of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Sudan and Somalia for the next 90 days, at least. It also affects non-U.S.citziens who hold dual citizenship with those countries.

At first it was believed that Canadian citizens who also have citizenship in any of the listed countries would be included in the travel ban, but on Saturday night the Prime Minister's Office said that "[they had] been assured that Canadian citizens travelling on Canadian passport will be dealt with ‎in the usual process."

The order hit a roadblock late Saturday, however, when a federal judge said stranded travellers could stay in the country.

Trump defended the sweeping bans, saying his administration needs time to develop more stringent screening processes for refugees, immigrants and visitors in order to fight "radical Islamic terrorists."

Safe third country?

Refugee advocates have been critical of the Safe Third Country Agreement since its inception. Goldberg said it has had the effect of forcing many refugees claimants to take riskier paths into Canada.

New York's John F. Kennedy Airport became the site of a spontaneous protest Saturday against a new executive order by U.S. President Donald Trump temporarily banning refugees and visitors from seven majority-Muslim countries. (The Associated Press / Craig Ruttle)

"The presumption is that the United States is a safe country so they don't need to request protection in Canada if they can already request asylum, protection or refugee status in the United States," Goldberg said.

"Clearly the United States appears to be on a path of being unsafe for many refugees. From those seven countries, to begin with, but there might be many others added as well."

In Quebec, the number of people claiming refugee status after crossing illegally from the U.S. has spiked in recent years, according to data from Canada's Border Service Agency.

Leadership role in 'refugee protection' for Canada

A tweet by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Saturday encouraged refugees to consider Canada, which he said would welcome them "regardless of your faith."

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said Canada will need to fill some of the void left by the United States. The U.S. has been a global leader in the protection of refugees, she said, and the fallout from Trump's decree targeting seven majority-Muslim countries will be "devastating."

"I think this development only makes it more important that Canada play a leadership role in refugee protection," she said.

"We can't fill the vacuum left by the U.S., obviously, but we should certainly do what we can."

That feeling was echoed by Goldberg.

"I think we can do a lot more to make up for the cruel policies of the United States," he said.  "I think we can do a lot more to resettle more refugees from places like Syria and Yemen."

With files from The Associated Press