OTTAWA - Amnesty International is calling on the Canadian government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States in light of a controversial refugee policy implemented this week by the Trump administration.
The new U.S. policy, adopted earlier this week, says asylum-seekers who arrive in the U.S. at its southern border are barred from filing for refugee protection if they failed to file a protection claim in a transit country.
The move would disqualify thousands of migrants who have travelled through Central America and Mexico to get to the U.S.
The new U.S. policy no longer guarantees asylum-seekers the same legal rights as those offered in Canada and could see some migrants sent back to countries where they face risks of violence and persecution, Amnesty International says.
Canada's agreement with the U.S. is based on the principle that people seeking refugee protection must file their claims in the first safe country they arrive in, unless they qualify for one of a few exceptions.
Canada officially considers the United States a safe country for refugees because it gives access to comparable legal protections. So if an asylum-seeker comes to Canada at an official border crossing from the United States and tries to claim refugee protection, he or she will be refused entry and encouraged to make a claim in the United States — the “safe country” from he or she just came.
"The Safe Third Country Agreement has long been premised on the equality of access to refugee protection in the United States and Canada. This (policy change) demonstrates very clearly that the U.S. system will no longer provide protection for a category of refugee-protection claimants, and for that reason we call for it to be suspended," said Justin Mohammed of Amnesty International Canada.
The agreement has provisions saying people turned back to the U.S. by Canada must not only have access to the U.S. asylum system, but they also cannot be transferred to other countries prior to having asylum hearings.
Despite this, Amnesty International says maintaining the status quo on the Safe Third Country Agreement could "risk complicity in U.S. violations of international refugee and human-rights law.”
"We cannot understand how the concept of a class exemption from refugee protection in the United States means that the United States continues to be a safe place for refugee protection claimants," Mohammed said.
The United Nations' refugee agency is also voicing deep concern about the new U.S. rule, fearing that it could put already-vulnerable families at risk. The measure is not in line with international obligations, the agency says.
"We are speaking about people who are fleeing Central America, who are fleeing extreme gang violence, LGBTI (people and) women being raped, young girls being raped, young boys being forced to join the gangs with extreme violence," said Jean-Nicolas Beuze, of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees' office in Canada.
Beuze visited the region last year and said the stories he heard from people fleeing violence in their home countries are "horrific."
"I think we really need to keep perspective when we are speaking about all these legal changes and so on, what we are speaking about — some people who are fleeing extremely difficult situations and won't be able to claim asylum in the U.S. any more."
Beuze would not offer an opinion on Canada's border agreement with the U.S., saying it's up to Canada and the U.S. to decide whether it is still working.
But he did note the UN refugee agency views the agreement as positive "provided that the two countries have comparable asylum systems and procedures, that people have access to fair review of their claims for asylum and that nobody will be at risk of return, including from chain-refoulement (deportation) from one country to another back into their country of origin (and) that people will be protected against being returned to a country where they will be at risk of torture or persecution."
Border Security Minister Bill Blair spoke with Beuze to listen to his concerns about the recent development in the United States.
Nonetheless, Canada still deems the U.S. a safe country, said Blair's press secretary Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux.
"The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act requires the ongoing review of all designated safe third countries to ensure the conditions that led to the designation continue to be met. Based on this continuous monitoring, the United States remains a safe country governed by the rule of law, and by the branches of the executive, legislative and judiciary, while also subscribing to international conventions on refugees and on torture," Cadieux said.
"Canada will continue to monitor conditions to ensure the U.S. continues to meet the requirements for safe third country designation."
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