All people deserve to live a safe life – free from the threat of violence or persecution. This is one of the founding principles of international human rights law. Canada has a longstanding history of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. However, one piece of legislation has raised concern among refugee advocacy groups.
The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) is an agreement between the U.S. and Canada, signed in 2002. The agreement states that if a refugee enters Canada to seek asylum, but has already travelled through another ‘safe’ country – i.e., the United States – then they are ineligible from seeking asylum in Canada. In such cases, the refugee must be returned to the U.S.
What is the issue?
The current administration in the U.S. has taken a strong stance against immigration – both legal and illegal – in recent years. This has included growing attacks on refugees and asylum seekers – who have fled their home countries out of fear for their own safety.
Consequently, refugee advocacy groups have been calling for Canada to rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement – as refugees sent back to the U.S. would be sent into detention and treated as prisoners. One compelling piece of evidence in the case was an affidavit from an Ethiopian asylum seeker, who recounted her time in solitary confinement in the U.S. as both terrifying and traumatic.
Court finds STCA unconstitutional
The federal judge in the case determined that because sending asylum seekers back to the U.S. meant sentencing them – in all likelihood – to imprisonment, that the STCA is therefore unconstitutional. She found that sending them to the U.S. would no longer mean sending them to a ‘safe’ country as outlined in the STCA. She ruled that following the STCA would, in fact, be a breach of Canada’s Charter of Rights – which guarantees the right to life, liberty and security.
The court’s ruling will not go into effect until January 22 of 2021, however, as the judge wanted to give Parliament six months to respond. In the meantime, Amnesty International Canada is pushing for the government to halt the return of refugees to the U.S. immediately.