Canada and the US have agreed to negotiate a safe third country agreement between the two countries.  The agreement would result in each country naming the other country a "safe third country" for the purposes of refugee claims.

Once such an agreement comes into effect, Canada's door would be closed to most refugee claimants who pass through the US on their way to seek protection in Canada.

The Canadian Council for Refugees is opposed to the agreement.  If the agreement is signed, it should at least give refugee claimants the right to choose the country in which they make their claim.

A "None is too many" agreement
"None is too many"was the response given by a high level Canadian government official when asked how many Jews should be accepted, at the time of the Nazi persecution of the Jews.  This became an apt description of the policies of the Canadian government, which closed its doors to Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Holocaust.  Because the safe third country agreement is about closing our doors to refugees, the Canadian Council for Refugees believes it deserves to be called the "None is too many" agreement.

During the Second World War, Canadian policies were anti-Semitic and Jewish refugees were treated differently from other refugees from Europe.  Under the proposed agreement, no particular ethnic group is targetted.  But Canada's door is being closed just the same.  Through the agreement, in combination with our visa requirements and interdiction practices, Canada is saying to refugees: "Don't come here, go somewhere else."

Haven't claimants arriving from the US already found "safe haven" there?
It is not true to say that refugee claimants coming through the US have found "safe haven" in the US.  Most are just transiting through the US on their way to Canada which was always their destination, in many cases because they have family here.  Because of Canada's location, a long way from most countries that refugees are fleeing, few can come here without transiting through another country.  If Canada closes its doors on claimants that have passed through another country, we are closing our door on most refugees.

Don't refugees have to seek asylum in the first safe country they reach?
International law does not require that refugees seek asylum in the first country they reach.  The basic principle of international law is that states must not send refugees back to persecution.  Therefore Canada has an obligation towards all refugees that arrive at our borders.  If we send a refugee back to another country and that country fails to protect the refugee, we share the responsibility for the violation of international law.

Why do refugees have Canada as their destination?
Many refugees choose to come to Canada rather than the US because they have family or friends here.  It may not be immediate family, but when you have been forced to flee and are in a foreign land, a cousin or a friend represents a lifeline.  Some come because they speak French.  It makes sense for refugees to go to a country where they have some connection.

Many refugees also come to Canada because they believe that Canada offers them a better chance of protection than the US.

Aren't US and Canadian refugee determination systems pretty much the same?
Canadian and US refugee systems are similar in many ways, but also have some important differences, including in interpretations of the refugee definition.  As a result, some refugees that would be accepted in Canada would be refused in the US.  For example, women that are fleeing gender-based persecution are more likely to be granted protection if they are allowed to make their claim in Canada.

The US also makes it difficult to make a claim if you have been in the US for over a year.  This means that a person who has been in the US as a student, for example, may not be allowed to make a refugee claim.

But don't US policies meet international standards, even if they are not quite the same as Canadian?
The US has been widely criticized for not meeting international standards in its refugee policies and practices.

One of the most problematic areas of US practice is detention.  Many asylum seekers are arbitrarily deprived of their right to liberty.  They are often held in appalling conditions, often detained alongside convicted criminals.  Children are among those detained.  Detention practices in the US do not meet international standards.

In December 2001, the United States instituted a policy of indefinite detention of Haitians, as a strategy to deter other Haitian asylum seekers.  According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, detention of asylum seekers based on their national origin is discriminatory and constitutes arbitrary detention.  The UNHCR has also noted that using detention as a means of deterring asylum seekers from seeking protection or to penalize asylum seekers for their unlawful entry is contrary to international law.

The US also has a policy of expedited removals which allows for the speedy removal of people who arrive in the US with no documents.  There is an exception for people with a "credible fear" of persecution, but decisions about whether a fear is "credible" are made by immigration officers, without the claimant having any right to counsel or even to telephone a family member.

Doesn't Canada need an agreement to control the numbers of refugee claims?
If Canada were to take a fair share of the world's refugees it would likely mean taking more refugees, not fewer.  The countries hosting the largest number of refugees are overwhelmingly countries in Africa and Asia.  The numbers of claims received by Canada are trivial in comparison.  Even when compared only to Western countries, other countries receive more refugee claims than Canada, both in terms of absolute numbers and on a per capita basis.

In 2001, Canada received 42,746 claims, significantly more than the average of 28,000 per year received in the 1990s.  However, there are numerous factors that affect rises and falls in numbers of claims.  Numbers often go up before the implementation of a new law.  In the first quarter of 2002, the numbers have already gone down dramatically: they are as much as a third lower than the numbers for the same period last year.

In 2001, 35% of refugee claims made in Canada came from people who entered via the US.  (Note that the figure of 72% that has been frequently cited is incorrect).

Isn't an agreement between the countries necessary to make things more orderly?
On the contrary, the proposed agreement will destroy the current orderly process at the border and likely create disorder.  Similar agreements in Europe have led to new problems of smuggling.

Currently, those wishing to claim refugee status present themselves in an orderly fashion at the border for examination by Canadian officials.  When that door is closed, desperate refugees will try to get across illegally.  Smugglers will exploit the situation.  The problems of exploitation, accidental deaths and border enforcement already seen along the US-Mexico border will find their parallel to the north.

10 June 2002