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Why everyone is talking about the Safe Third Country Agreement

Canada has designated the U.S. a safe country for refugees, a stance many say should be changed given mass arrests and family separations.

By Emma Prestwich

Stories of immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border have drawn condemnation all over the world, but in Canada, they have also renewed calls to scrap a key policy. 

Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, those who want to make asylum claims have to do so in the first safe country they enter, meaning that if a claimant arrives at an official Canadian land border crossing via the U.S., they will be turned back.

Canada has a few exceptions, including for those who have family members with Canadian citizenship, permanent residency, protected person status or a valid work permit, and for unaccompanied minors. 

Many Canadians, including politicians and refugee advocates are calling on the federal government to ditch or suspend the agreement.

The U.S.-Mexico border. (Credit: Pixabay)

They argue that the U.S., which is the only nation Canada designates as a safe third country under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, isn’t safe at all, given an American "zero-tolerance" policy adopted last month that requires all those crossing into the U.S. from Mexico illegally to be prosecuted.

More than 168,000 border crossers were arrested between January and May, but it's the recent separation of children from their parents that has drawn the most ire.

A 10-year-old girl with Down syndrome was separated from her mother last week when they crossed the border, and a Honduran woman said her daughter was taken away while she breastfed her in a detention centre.

On Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to keep families together,  but also wants the ability to detain the children indefinitely.

"It is wrong, morally and legally, to send claimants back to the U.S., knowing as we do that they may face serious violations of their basic rights."

Canada has seen a flood of asylum seekers walk into the country at unofficial entry points since last year amid harsh immigration rhetoric from Trump and the news that the temporary protected status for people from a number of countries will expire in the next year or two.

The Safe Third Country Agreement only applies at official border crossings, so those who make it to Canada via a forest or back road can make asylum claims. But doing so has led many of these people into danger, with some suffering severe injuries due to the cold.

Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said last month that he’d like to modernize it, and suggested that officials could use biometrics at formal border crossings to more easily track who is eligible to claim asylum.

But as The Canadian Press points out, that will do nothing to slow the flood of people coming through at unofficial points. 

Last year, the Canadian Council of Churches, along with Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees, launched a legal challenge of the U.S.'s designation as a safe third country. 

"The U.S. was never safe for all refugees, and is now even less safe," President of the Canadian Council for Refugees, Loly Rico, said in a July 2017 press release announcing the challenge.

"It is wrong, morally and legally, to send claimants back to the U.S., knowing as we do that they may face serious violations of their basic rights."

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