The US can no longer be considered a “safe” country for refugees. That is the extraordinary finding by Canadian federal court justice Ann Marie McDonald, who last week ruled the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), a longstanding asylum arrangement between the two countries, as unconstitutional for violating the Canadian charter of human rights.
Since 2004 the STCA has required refugees to declare asylum in the country to which they first arrive. In effect, the agreement means that those who first arrive in the US but only attempt to claim asylum at Canadian ports-of-entry must be turned away. According to Justice McDonald this violates Canada’s charter of human rights due to the likelihood that rejected migrants will be imprisoned if returned to the US. That the US has effectively been ruled “unsafe” and in violation of human rights is a sign of just how far perceptions of the US administration have fallen in the eyes of Canada’s judiciary. But it also puts Justin Trudeau’s government in a tricky position. Refugee-advocacy groups are hoping that Ottawa won’t appeal the ruling – but that might be unlikely.
Sharry Aiken, a professor and expert on immigration and refugee law at Ontario’s Queen’s University, explains that the Liberal government’s defence of the STCA is in part a political effort to insulate itself from right-wing critics who want the border shut to refugees. According to Aiken, the government has been more fixated on controlling a possible influx of asylum seekers than protecting human rights. “That’s just sacrificing principle on the altar of public optics,” says Aiken. “Canada is a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention and we’re shirking our responsibilities when we send asylum seekers back to the US to face certain detention and the prospect of [deportation] to the very country they fled from.” Trump has made his choice but Trudeau still has an opportunity to defend the rights of the vulnerable.