Canadian law professors say U.S. no longer safe for refugees

A group of Canadian law professors is calling on Ottawa to suspend an agreement with the U.S. requiring refugees to seek protection in the first safe country they arrive in, a request prompted by fears of rising hostility towards immigrants and refugees under President Donald Trump.

The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement is part of a multi-pronged border co-operation framework designed to help both governments manage asylum claims from individuals arriving in North America. The United States is the only country considered safe by Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Queen’s University professor Sharryn Aiken argues that the U.S. has demonstrated that it is no longer a safe place for refugees following Trump’s executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering, and discussion of using torture tactics to extract information from terror suspects.

A letter from the group addressed to Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen states that Trump’s actions are inconsistent with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the Convention Against Torture, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and a number of other international human rights instruments. It started circulating on Monday and has attracted more than 150 signatures.

“What Trump has done is above and beyond the sort of anti-refugee discourse and policies we have seen on both sides of the border quite frankly,” she told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday. “It smacks of the kind of nativist thinking, of xenophobia and bigotry, that the international refugee regime was designed to counteract.”

Hussen told CTV News on Tuesday that there will be no changes to Canada’s immigration policies at this time, noting that the U.S. administration has agreed to let in some 850 refugees that had initially been denied following Trump’s executive action.

“It shows you that this is a fast changing situation, it’s evolving constantly, so the responsible thing to do is maintain contact,” he said. “We have an immigration plan that we intend to stick to.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter on Saturday to express Canada’s openness to individuals fleeing persecution, terror and war, regardless of religious faith. The message was retweeted over 424,000 times and liked by over 759,000 people.

Aiken says Canada has the right to suspend the agreement without notice for a temporary period of three months to allow refugee claimants who first set foot in the U.S. to request protection in Canada. Six months’ notice to the U.S. would be required to abolish it completely.

Canada’s refugee target for 2017 is 25,000, broadly broken into three groups: 16,000 privately sponsored refugees, 7,500 government-assisted refugees, and 1,500 in a blended program that combines the two. But those figures do not include individuals who arrive in Canada unannounced.

Akien, an expert in immigration and refugee law, says the Safe Third Country Agreement has caused “tremendous hardships” for certain categories of refugees, noting that claimants from certain countries and those who cite gender persecution are not generally accepted in the U.S.

“In the United States they are prevented from making a claim. They are barred from the asylum process and they are basically put on a fast-track to deportation to a country where they are at risk,” she said.

Aiken says Canada demonstrated its ability to rapidly ramp up its intake of refugees last year when Ottawa tripled the number of admissions through its resettlement program in response to the ongoing conflict in Syria. She predicts the potential uptick from a three-month suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement would be “very manageable” for officials.

“The number of people who are actually seeking to come into Canada from the U.S. is not going to be a groundswell. It may amount to an increase, but we have the capacity to deal with it,” she said.

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