Canadian humanitarians ask, Is U.S. still safe for refugees?

Feb 21, 2017

Several aid organizations and pro-immigrant groups are pressuring the Canadian government to pull out of a controversial program which turns away almost all refugees coming in through the United States.

Canada started thinking about ways to regulate the flow of refugees across its borders back in the 1980s. That is how the nation came up with the idea for a Safe Third Country agreement with the United States. You will find versions of it all over the world — a deal among nations where people tend to seek asylum. It usually says refugees have to stay in the first safe country they can get to.

Credit WBFO News file photo

In 2002, Canada officially declared the United States was just as safe. If refugees land there, most have to stay there and make their case for asylum.

Aid groups were never a fan of this policy: Amnesty International challenged the deal in court and lost on appeal. But now, several other organizations have joined Amnesty's Canada chapter in saying the Safe Third Country deal is severely outdated.

"It’s time for Canada to stop pretending in our asylum system that the United States is a safe country and to open up the possibility for refugee claimants who pass through the United States to turn to Canada for protection instead," said Alex Neve, Amnesty's secretary general in Canada.

After President Donald Trump’s first executive order on immigration last month, letters and petitions started piling up. Lawyers, professors, even the College of Family Physicians of Canada have expressed concern about American immigration policies "with respect to the fairness in the system, with respect to how it handles concerns around things like immigration detention, and now, particularly in the last two or three weeks, respect for and commitment to human rights and refugee protection," Neve said.

Those concerns are motivating more and more migrants to cross into Canada on foot and take advantage of a major loophole in the Safe Third Country deal: If you can get across the border without going through a formal checkpoint, you’re still eligible to apply for asylum in Canada, regardless of which country you came from. Most migrants can’t make it to Canada straight away, Neve said.

"There are a lot more flights that end up, for instance, at JFK airport in New York City than at Pearson airport in Toronto."

With reports of severe cold-weather injuries and arrests along the New York-Canada border, Neve said anyone who's considering the trip should make contact with an aid group and ask for legal help first.