Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, August 10, 2005
Canada not meeting its obligation toward refugees
Safe Third Country Agreement with U.S. allows Canada to turn away genuine refugees

Janet Dench and Rick Goldman

Dr. Shazia Khalid has achieved something few refused refugees could ever dream of - backing for her case in the pages of the New York Times. Khalid fled her native Pakistan to London after she was raped and threatened with an "honour killing" for bringing shame on her family (for having been raped). She has family and friends in Canada but was turned down for refugee status by the Canadian embassy because she was out of imminent danger in England.

Countless individuals receive similar treatment each year and many thousands of others never even get that sort of reply - they are simply stopped at airports for attempting to travel to Canada with false documents (even though most refugees can never hope to obtain passports from their countries, or Canadian visas).

Without any examination of their fear of persecution, they are detained and deported. This is a policy commonly known as "interdiction," but which the Canadian government prefers to euphemistically term "immigration integrity."

In his New York Times column last week, published Aug. 3 in The Gazette, Nicholas Kristof urged the Canadian government to grant Khalid and her husband admission to Canada. "Come on Canadians, have you no heart?" he asked.

This blast in the international media must have come as a quite a shock to Canadian immigration officials. A few years ago, they realized the advantages - from their perspective - of stopping refugee claimants from ever getting to Canada. Since the refugees never arrive here, there are no messy media reports about individuals being deported to the threat of death or torture; Canadians do not lobby politicians on behalf of families who never make it to Canada.

These interdiction measures are at least in part responsible for a sharp decline in the number of refugee claimants arriving here: from 44,000 in 2001 to 25,000 last year. But that, it seems, was not enough. In December 2004, the Canadian government took interdiction to a whole new level with the implementation of the U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires that, with few exceptions, refugee claimants from troubled countries are turned back from the Canadian border because they first arrived in the United States.

Just over six months following its implementation, the devastating human rights effects of the agreement are becoming clear.

Although the Canadian government maintains the United States is just as safe for refugees as is Canada, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have observed this is simply not true.

Thousands of asylum-seekers, including children, are held in detention in the United States for months and even years, often in jails alongside convicted criminals. Those who are detained have reduced chances of being granted refugee protection because it is difficult for detainees even to make a phone call, let alone get the help they need to present their refugee claim adequately.

There have recently been widely publicized allegations of abuses of detainees in U.S. immigration jails. One consequence of this harsher treatment is that the acceptance rate for refugees is lower in the U.S. than in Canada. To take one example, the acceptance rate for Colombians, who are fleeing one of the most violent and war-torn countries on Earth, is 81 per cent in Canada, vs. just 45 per cent in the U.S.

Indeed, the experience of Colombian refugee claimants starkly illustrates the damaging human rights impact of the agreement. In 2004, Colombian refugees accounted for the largest number of claims in Canada. Almost all Colombians arrive here by land, since few can ever hope to board a plane to get to Canada. Now that they are barred, under the Safe Third Country Agreement, from entering Canada by land, the number of Colombian claims has dropped by 70 per cent in the first half of 2005, compared with the first half of 2004.

If the trends continue, about 2,500 Colombians, who would normally have made it safely to Canada in 2005, will never make it here because of Safe Third Country. Of these, about 2,025 (81 per cent) would have been accepted as refugees in Canada. However, now that they are forced to remain in the United States, only 1,125 (45 per cent) will be accepted as refugees.

This means that, in just the first year of the agreement, about 900 Colombians who would have been accepted in Canada as refugees will instead face detention and removal from the U.S. to Colombia. These people will be invisible to us as Canadians, but their plight in countries such as Colombia will be no less severe. So it is no exaggeration to describe Safe Third Country as a "silent killer."

The Canadian government never has explained why it needs a blunt tool like the Safe Third Country Agreement to further cut the number of refugee claimants arriving here or why the number must be further lowered altogether. After just six months, it is clear Safe Third is having a devastating effect on the ability of refugees to find protection in Canada and on our ability to meet our international obligations to refugees at our door. Enough damage has been already done. The Safe Third Country Agreement should be cancelled.

Janet Dench is director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, Rick Goldman is co-ordinator of the Committee to Aid Refugees at the Table de Concertation des organismes au services des personnes refugiees et immigrantes.

(The CCR's six-month review of the Safe Third Country Agreement is available at