Bitter Refuge: After 3 Years, Very Little About Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement On Refugees Makes Sense

Bitter refuge

After three years, very little about Canada's Safe Third Country Agreement on refugees makes sense

Chris Selley
Macleans Magazine
Oct 26, 2007 | 4:29 pm EST

Canada's overtaxed refugee system was once far more visible than it is now. Before 2005, the long, politically unsightly queues of refugees that would periodically assemble at Canada's border crossings from the United States raised uncomfortable questions about the system's integrity, capacity and efficiency. So, despite Canadian concerns about the very different way the U.S. treat refugee claimants, officials from the two countries decided that with a few exceptions, people would have to claim asylum in the first of the two countries they set foot inthe so-called Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). And nearly three years later, for better or worse, the queues are gone. But as recent influxes of Mexicans and other Latin Americans have shown, the refugees and the uncomfortable questions most certainly are not.

There were always oddities in the STCA, the most fundamental being that the restrictions only apply at land crossings; anyone arriving by boat or plane from the U.S. can still seek asylum in Canada. And though it was often lumped in with other post-9/11 security issues”I think we need to accept the reality that the U.S. feels vulnerable and that security is continuing to be the order of the day,” Deputy Prime Minister John Manley said in 2002it's never been entirely clear what was in this for Washington. It promised to vastly increase the burden on American refugee system, for one thing, to the point that a 2002 Washington Post editorial framed the STCA as a concession to Canada.

Still, both countries had “refugee protection programs that meet international standards and mature legal systems that offer procedural safeguards,” the Canadian government argued, and the sheer number of migrants made sharing the burden undeniably attractive. Besides which, it suggested, it would be a cure for the loss of “public confidence in the integrity of our refugee determination system” caused by the enormous backlogs, which was leading to “weakened public support for our protection programs” in general.

It would be interesting to know where public confidence in the refugee system stands today. Despite little chance of ultimate success, significant numbers of Mexicans have very noticeably been arriving in Windsor and applying for refugee status. Mexico is by far the biggest source of asylum claims in Canadamore than three times as many as come from China, in second placebut most arrive by air. So this unusual overland influx highlighted a loophole in the STCA: it doesn't apply to anyone who doesn't need a tourist visa to come to Canada. As Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, recently told, if a government extends a welcoming hand to another country's citizens, it might seem a little odd to summarily send them packing in their hour of need.

But the vast majority of Mexican asylum claimants will eventually be sent packing anyway, once their claims have been rejected. And logically, it's difficult to see why tourist visas should have anything to do with who can make a claim. Only one of the nine “thresholds” countries must achieve to qualify for a visa exemption concerns refugees, and Mexico actually fell short of it in 2006 by accounting for more than two per cent of total asylum claims. Visa re-impositions are “considered” under such circumstances, a Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokeswoman tells, though that presents its own problems. Past refugee influxes are why Hungarians and other new European Union citizens still need visas to come to Canada, much to the EU's displeasure. But it underlines the paradox. The validity of a refugee claim still theoretically lies in the claimant's circumstances, not in his passportsomething underlined by the STCA exemption currently extended to Afghans, Haitians and citizens of other especially strife-torn nations. And yet the visa exemption for Mexicans facilitates thousands of hopeless refugee claims even while the STCA keeps thousands of potentially legitimate ones out.

Well, sometimes it does, anyway. Forty-five Venezuelans and Colombians apprehended in southern Quebec last weekafter driving unmolested across the border from Vermontare now in Montreal awaiting a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board. How is this possible under the STCA? Because, incredibly, the restrictions literally only apply at Canada's official land border crossingsnot 500 metres east of a crossing in a muddy field, and not 500 metres west of a crossing in a quaint border village such as Stanstead. Had the asylum-seekers lawfully presented themselves to Canadian border guards, they'd have been turned back.

And it's not as if the government wasn't warned. The Citizenship and Immigration Committee heard just about every one of the concerns now being raised in its discussions on the STCA. “Asylum seekers who know they can no longer seek admission at the borderbecause they are not entitled under the agreement to do somay very well engage the services of smugglers to take them across the border illegally, in order to make a claim inland,” Judith Kumin, then the Canadian representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told Committee members in 2002. “Indeed, this is what we have seen happen in other countries that have implemented similar arrangements.” And indeed, this seems to be what's happening now. Two people face human smuggling-type charges in Quebec over the recent South American arrivals. And the Mexican influx has been blamed in part on Floridian Jacques Sinjuste, who has been accused of misleading Mexicans about their chances in Canada and profiting from their misfortune to boot.

If nothing else, the STCA should have eased the burden on Canada's refugee system. But with dozens of positions on the Immigration and Refugee Board inexplicably vacant, Canada's refugee backlog is growing steadily again. And as those desperate to come to Canada continue to exploit loopholes in the agreement, it may well be time to ask if the many logical and humanitarian sacrifices it entails are ultimately worth it. The unsightly queues might be gone, but for a government that was fiercely critical of the Liberals' record on refugees while in opposition, the situations in Windsor and along the Quebec/Vermont border can't be much less embarrassing.