UWindsor law prof says 'momentous' federal ruling makes asylum in Canada easier for refugees

University of Windsor law professor Vasanthi Venkatesh says a new ruling made by the Federal Court of Canada this week will make it easier for those looking to apply for refugee status at Canadian borders. 

But experts in refugee services anticipate the government will appeal the ruling

Assistant law professor Vasanthi Venkatesh said the decision is 'momentous' and will make it easier for people to apply for refugee status. (Sameer Chhabra/CBC)

University of Windsor law professor Vasanthi Venkatesh says a new ruling made by the Federal Court of Canada this week will make it easier for those looking to apply for refugee status at Canadian borders. 

"It's a momentous decision," Venkatesh told CBC's Windsor Morning on Friday, adding that advocates have pushed for this for a long time. 

On Wednesday, the Federal Court of Canada struck down the Safe Third Country Agreement, a plan that has been in place since 2004. The agreement has meant that refugees arriving in the United States and who present themselves at the border looking to make a claim in Canada are denied, with few exceptions. 

Typically, these asylum seekers are sent back to the U.S. to make the claim there. 

This is because the agreement recognizes both countries as "safe" for migrants and requires refugee claimants to request asylum in the first country they arrive. This has led to thousands of asylum seekers crossing at unofficial border crossings like Roxham Road, on the border between Quebec and New York State.

A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer informs a migrant couple of the location of a legal border station, shortly before they crossed from Champlain, N.Y., to Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., using Roxham Road. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press)

This week the Federal Court of Canada's ruling recognizes that sending those refugee claimants back to the U.S. violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The federal government has six months to respond to the ruling. 

While it seems unusual that somebody who wants to be in Canada would initially land in the U.S., Venkatesh said it' happens because it's "difficult" to come to Canada. 

"I mean we are geographically isolated with just one land border with the United States and it's very difficult to get a visa in to Canada for those who can make it to Canada," she said. 

Some in refugee sector anticipate the government will appeal the ruling 

Mike Morency, the executive director of Windsor's Matthew House Refugee Centre, said that while the ruling is a good step forward, it'll be some time before an actual change occurs. 

"The decision this week is an important one and we are cautiously optimistic," he said. "Really the decision verifies what refugee advocates have been claiming for a while now...that the United States is not in fact a safe and fair country for refugees to have their claim heard." 

Until they know what the federal government will do in light of this ruling, Morency said nothing actually changes. He added that of those he has spoken to in the refugee sector, many anticipate that the government will appeal the decision and that "the issue will drag on for many more years."

If this is the case, he said it will continue to leave asylum seekers feeling unsafe and prevent them from "rebuilding their lives."

"When there is lack of clarity, people are left hanging...and that's not right, we want people to be back to quickly settle into our community [and] rebuild their lives," he said. "That is held back when their status is in  limbo." 

Executive director of Matthew House Mike Morency said the ruling is 'good' but he doesn't think it will have much of an impact anytime soon. (Jennifer La Grassa/CBC)

Morency said he did speak with some local refugees about the ruling as some were concerned and didn't understand what the decision meant or how it impacted them. 

Morency said Windsor doesn't typically see irregular crossings as it is separated from the U.S. by water.



  • An earlier version of this story implied that families are often separated by the Safe Third Country Agreement. In fact, 'family unity' is listed on the Government of Canada's website, as one of several exceptions to the agreement .
    Jul 25, 2020 6:41 PM ET

With files from Jennifer Yoon and Jennifer La Grassa