Lloyd Axworthy is chair of the World Refugee Council and a former Canadian minister of foreign affairs. Allan Rock is president emeritus of the University of Ottawa and a former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations.
As asylum-seekers continue to cross into Canada from the United States, their arrival has become a hot political issue. Partisan fingers are being pointed and angry questions are being asked. Who are these people and why are they coming? What, if any, obligation do we have to accept them? What is the “safe third country” agreement and how does it affect any of this?
Let’s start with the basics. As signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention and Protocol, both Canada and the United States must grant protection to those seeking asylum due to well-founded fears of persecution or death in their country of origin. Under Canadian and international law, anyone is legally entitled to cross our border seeking asylum. Impartial adjudicators then assess the legitimacy of the asylum claim: Are their fears well founded? Would they really face persecution or worse if sent home? If so, they are allowed to stay.
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Canada and the United States added a new dimension in 2004 by agreeing to regard each other as, in effect, safe havens. Each barred asylum-seekers arriving from the other at official points of entry, reasoning that no credible claim of persecution could be made in either.
But things have changed. Donald Trump’s administration’s harsh approach to migrants has created fear and uncertainty among asylum-seekers in the United States. Sadly, the United States no longer offers them a safe haven. Beyond demonizing migrants, Mr. Trump’s appointees have adopted inhumane practices.
Asylum-seekers are being detained at astonishing rates in the United States, often in deplorable conditions. Despite having no criminal record, many are jailed while their applications for asylum are pending, mostly in private prisons. Human Rights First reports that three-quarters of asylum-seekers in U.S. immigration proceedings are detained at some point, compared to 16 per cent of refugee claimants in Canada. Recent reports about the treatment of migrant children, in particular, demonstrate just how unsafe the U.S. immigration system has become: U.S. officials recently admitted that they “lost track” of nearly 20 per cent of the children formerly in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Despite this fiasco, Attorney-General Jeff Sessions recently announced a policy of separating asylum-seekers from their children, some as young as toddlers. The United Nations calls this an “arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and a serious violation of the rights of the child.”
Consider Ms. L, an asylum-seeker who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her seven-year-old daughter. After they were detained upon arrival in the United States, Ms. L’s daughter was taken from her and sent to a facility more than 2,000 miles away. They were jailed across the country from each other for four months. Ms. L. fled brutality only to have her daughter taken from her arms by U.S. officials: Who could blame her if, feeling unsafe, she wanted to cross into Canada to seek protection?
And those fleeing from the United States to Canada have good reason to fear harm if the United States returns them to their countries of origin. The vast majority are from war-torn states with high levels of violence and human-rights violations. Most are at serious risk of persecution and torture in their native lands. In fact, more than 50 per cent of the refugee claims made by persons who enter Canada irregularly are granted.
Some Canadians have demanded that the “safe third country” prohibition on entry be extended to cover the entire border, not just official entry points. But surely that is the wrong approach. It would seal off any chance to escape for those many who are being mistreated and put at grave risk of return by a U.S. administration with vastly different policies from the one we dealt with in 2004.
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In our view, a much better solution would be to suspend the “safe third country” arrangement until conditions in the United States change. The United States is no longer “safe” for asylum seekers. And, unlike 2004, we can no longer regard our duty to them as met simply because they are within U.S. jurisdiction. Just as our government responded with strength to Mr. Trump’s absurd trade sanctions, we should make crystal clear that we will not be complicit in his mistreatment of refugees.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government have earned Canada a well-deserved reputation as a humane refuge for the forcibly displaced. And Canadians, in communities across the land, have opened their hearts and their homes to sponsor and support refugees. Let’s make sure that our policies at the border reflect “the Canadian way” and are worthy of the values we cherish.