Asylum seekers relieved court has struck down key Canada-U.S. treaty

The ruling caused a wave of joy for refugees across the country, says Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees

The ruling caused a wave of joy for refugees across the country, says advocate

Thousands of asylum seekers have crossed into Canada at irregular border crossings like Roxham Road, to avoid being sent back to the U.S. under the Safe Third Country Agreement, which was struck down Wednesday in Federal Court. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

Alaa Mohamedahmed, a Sudanese asylum seeker who came to Canada by way of the United States, says she remembers the fear she felt as she approached the border.

She knew she could be turned back, detained in the U.S. and even returned to Sudan.

"You're in limbo. That's something you live with," she said.

It came as a huge relief to her to find out the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada had been struck down Wednesday. Had she crossed into Canada at a regular border crossing, that agreement would have required Canadian border security agents to send her back to the U.S.

"It makes me really happy, this idea that people will not have to go through that, that there will be more respect, more consideration for people who are coming in and seeking asylum," said Mohamedahmed.

In her judgment, Justice Ann Marie McDonald said the agreement violates the right to life, liberty and security, guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She gave the federal government six months to respond to her ruling.

The agreement, signed in 2004, recognizes both countries as "safe" for migrants, and requires refugee claimants to request asylum in the first country they arrive in.

This led to thousands of asylum seekers crossing at unofficial border crossings, like Roxham Road, on the border between Quebec and New York State.

Alaa Mohamedahmed, a Sudanese asylum seeker who came to Canada by way of the U.S., says she is happy for future asylum seekers.

Mohamedahmed was one of those who decided to come into Canada through an irregular point of entry almost one year ago.

She fled Sudan after her family began receiving threatening calls about her involvement in a popular uprising there. Upon arriving in New York, she grabbed her bags and headed straight for Canada.

Applying for asylum in the U.S. was out of the question, says Mohamedahmed. She had read about the detention centres that house asylum seekers and about the experiences of those trying to seek asylum.

"That did not sound safe, or like something I wanted to put myself through," she said.

Mohamedahmed says she has experienced the stigma of being called irregular or illegal. She says she hopes this ruling will give future asylum seekers a chance to avoid this label.

"People will be able to come through the regular port of entry," she said.

"I'm happy knowing that, in the future, people will not have to go through what I had to go through."

Pressure on the government to act now

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says there was a wave of joy among refugees across the country following the ruling Wednesday, but she's still watching for what comes next.

"You never want to be too confident with court rulings," she said.

Dench says the treaty has had a huge impact on people's lives and she is concerned that the ruling allows it to remain in effect for six months — until Jan. 22, 2021.

She says she is now urging the government to suspend the treaty immediately, to help those who want to come into Canada now.

"We are asking the government to live up to its commitment, which is to respect human rights."

With files from CBC Daybreak