Media Release
For Immediate Release
10 October 2007

The Canadian Council for Refugees and Amnesty International Canada today joined the United Nations Refugee Agency in condemning the Canadian government for having summarily removed five refugee claimants on Monday 8 October.  The four Haitians and one Salvadoran were returned to the U.S. from the Lacolle, Québec border point without being given a chance to make a refugee claim.

“It is completely unacceptable for the Canadian government, based on its convenience, to turn away refugee claimants who are seeking our protection,” said Amy Casipullai, CCR Vice President.  “Protecting refugees is an obligation under international law. The government can’t simply set this obligation aside because they are busy doing something else on a particular day.”

The claimants were turned away using a provision the government calls “direct backs”, which the UN and human rights organizations say should never be used against refugee claimants.  According to government policy adopted in August 2006, direct backs of refugee claimants are not permitted, unless there are “exceptional circumstances”.  On 8 October there were only 33 claimants at Lacolle.

“The basic human right to seek asylum must be respected no matter how many refugees are involved,” said Gloria Nafziger, Refugee Coordinator, Amnesty International.  “Governments are sometimes confronted with hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in a matter of days, and yet are urged by others, including the Canadian government, to keep their borders open.  How can the Canadian government urge others to respect their obligations, if Canada claims to be “overwhelmed” by three dozen claimants?”

The use of direct backs is also contrary to the Safe Third Country Agreement¸ which the Canadian government justified as providing a clear legal framework to assign responsibility between the U.S. and Canada for refugee determination.  “Direct backs” force refugees to make their claim in the U.S. even when according to the restrictive Agreement they are entitled to make their claim in Canada.  Furthermore, refugee claimants who are directed back by Canadian officials may be detained by the U.S. authorities.  Detention conditions and possibilities of release in the U.S. are very grim, and weaknesses in the U.S. refugee system mean that some people needing protection are denied asylum and deported to face persecution.  Two of the claimants have in fact been detained by the U.S. authorities.

Amnesty International Canada and the CCR have lodged a complaint about Canada’s use of direct backs with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  The complaint is pending.

The use of direct backs at the Lacolle border follows closely upon the recent arrest at the same border point of Janet Hinshaw Thomas.  A representative of a humanitarian refugee serving organization, she was charged with people smuggling.  The coincidence strengthens the impression that the Canadian government is becoming increasingly hostile to refugees and unwilling to uphold its international commitments.

For more information on the complaint to the Inter-American Commission, see release 1 April 2004

For more information on the prosecution of Janet Hinshaw Thomas, see release 27 September 2007

Janet Dench, CCR Executive Director, (514) 277-7223 (ext. 2)
Colleen French, CCR Communications Coordinator, (514) 277-7223 (ext. 1)
Beth Berton-Hunter, Amnesty International Canada, 416-363-9933 (ext. 32), (416) 904-7158 (cell)