U.S. No Refugee Haven, Agencies To Tell Court; Number Of Claimants Has Dropped Sharply Since Deal Struck, Humanitarian Groups Say (By Gloria Galloway in The Globe and Mail)

December 29, 2005: U.S. No Refugee Haven, Agencies To Tell Court; Number Of Claimants Has Dropped Sharply Since Deal Struck, Humanitarian Groups Say (By Gloria Galloway in The Globe and Mail)

U.S. no refugee haven, agencies to tell court; Number of claimants has dropped sharply since deal struck, humanitarian groups say By GLORIA GALLOWAY

Thursday, December 29, 2005 Posted at 5:15 AM EST

From Thursday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA A trio of humanitarian agencies will ask the Federal Court to overturn the designation of the United States as a safe third country — a designation that prevents refugees on that side of the border from making a claim for asylum in Canada.

The Canadian Council of Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches opposed the Safe Third Country Agreement even before it took effect a year ago.

They will ask the court to find that the United States does not meet the criteria of a safe country because it has not respected its obligations under the Convention Against Torture and the Refugee Convention.

They will also argue that, by returning refugee claimants to the United States, Canada is violating its international obligations as well as the claimants' Charter rights.

The groups argue the number of people making claims for asylum in Canada has dropped dramatically as a result of the deal, which was based on the contention that both Canada and the United States are safe countries for refugees.

In 2005, “we're going to have the lowest number of claimants since the mid-1980s,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the refugees council. “So clearly, many people are being denied the opportunity to seek protection in Canada.”

A report released today by the council says the total number of refugee claims made in Canada dropped to 17,932 between January and November of 2005 from 22,434 during the same period in 2004.

“We are asking that there at least be an opportunity for individual applicants to show why they would not be safe in the United States,” said Ms. Dench, adding that she does not dispute the fact that the United States is a safe country for some refugees.

“Our concern is that it is not safe for all.”

Women fleeing gender-based persecution may face a much greater test in the United States to prove they need asylum than they would in Canada, she said.

Similarly, she added, there is more discrimination against Muslims and Arabs in the United States than there is in Canada. And Colombians have a much easier time obtaining refuge in Canada, where they are accepted 81 per cent of the time, compared with 45 per cent in the United States, Ms. Dench said.

Gloria Nafziger, refugee co-ordinator for Amnesty International in Canada, said the groups waited a year to launch the challenge because they wanted to ensure that they had the evidence to make their arguments.

Some may argue that the fact that more refugees are refused asylum in the United States than in Canada suggests Canada is too lenient.

But Ms. Nafziger said she does not believe Canada's system is overly generous.

And “even when you look at international guidelines and principles, the way in which the U.S. assesses those claims is not in keeping always with those guidelines.”

She referred to a case highlighted in today's council report in which an Ethiopian woman who had been imprisoned in her country for alleged ties to a political group was denied refuge in the United States but was accepted in Canada without a hearing.

But that was before the Safe Third Country Agreement took effect.

Gregg Scott, a spokesman for Canada's Immigration Department, said the report is consistent with what the refugees council has said in the past.

“Both Canada and the United States are committed to our international obligations,” he said.

“We continue to offer protection to people who are in genuine need.”

The agreement was introduced to ensure that claims are handled as fairly and efficiently as possible, he added, “but also to ensure that we reduce abuse.”