A gated community: Safe Third Country Agreement

Posted by admin on Dec 29th, 2004

Montreal Gazette, 29 December 2004
Rick Goldman

“This Safe Third Country Agreement reflects a widespread and growing international consensus that no refugee receiving country can, on its own, solve the refugee problems of the world.” – Canadian Government statement accompanying publication of Safe Third Country Regulations.

It is with those words the Canadian government justifies the U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement that comes into effect today. Under this agreement, Canada has effectively closed its land border to refugees. With few exceptions, refugee claimants who first land in the United States before coming to the Canadian border will be refused entry to Canada and will be turned back to have their cases decided in the U.S.

This raises at least two basic questions: Is Canada actually doing more than its fair share to solve “the refugee problems of the world”? And is the United States a safe country for refugees?

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are about 10 million refugees in the world. Most of them never make it far from the troubled countries they are fleeing.

For example, Pakistan is currently “host” to the largest number of refugees in the world, followed by Iran. Each has about one million, that is, 10 per cent of the world’s refugees. Canada, for its part, is host to about 1.3 per cent of the world’s refugees.

The number of refugee claimants arriving in Canada has dropped steadily in recent years, as Canadian officials have become more and more effective at stopping potential refugees overseas from ever boarding a plane to Canada. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, Canada will also prevent refugees from coming indirectly to Canada. This will further reduce the number of claimants arriving here, to about16,000 per year. By way of comparison, Germany, France and Britain each received between three and four times that number of claimants last year. Can the Canadian government honestly declare this agreement is necessary to bring Canada’s share of the burden in line with that of other countries?

There are several reasons for which the U.S. cannot be considered safe for refugees:

Return to face torture. The most fundamental principle of the Refugee Convention is that no one should be sent back to a country where they would face persecution. In addition, the Convention against Torture, which Canada has also signed, forbids returning anyone to face torture, that most vile form of persecution.

The U.S. shocked the conscience of Canadians in 2002 when it sent Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, to Syria, a country notorious for its use of torture, where Arar was in fact detained and tortured for a year.

Further, according to recent reports by groups such as Amnesty International and the Red Cross, the United States is itself engaged in systematic cruel and unusual treatment of detainees amounting to torture in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, Iraq and at other locations that remain secret.

How worried will a government that sends a Canadian citizen to face torture – and treats its own detainees in a manner tantamount to torture – be about returning a person with no legal status to face torture or other persecution? Not very, in fact. Legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Congress that would permit returning torture victims to the country where they were tortured, as long as the U.S. government simply requests that they not be tortured in the future.

Treatment of refugee claimants in the U.S. The U.S. lags far behind Canada in terms of its treatment of refugee claimants. Detention of claimants is much more common in the U.S. than in Canada, even for children. Conditions are difficult, as refugee claimants are often held in jails, alongside ordinary prisoners.

Last month, an 81-year old Haitian pastor died in an immigration detention centre in Florida. His family says he was deprived of his blood-pressure medication. He was seeking asylum in the U.S. because he was targeted by gang members who burned down his church in Port-au-Prince.

U.S. treatment of claimants is also discriminatory. The Haitian minister was
detained despite the fact he was elderly, sick and had relatives in the U.S. he could stay with. Young Muslim men seeking asylum are routinely detained. However, Cuban entertainers and athletes are welcomed with open arms. The acceptance rate on refugee claims is lower in the U.S. than in Canada, as legal aid is not provided and it is more difficult to prepare an immigration claim while in detention.

So, ultimately, there is no justification for the Safe Third Country Agreement in terms of the numbers of refugees arriving in Canada and it is likely to have a devastating effect on thousands of people each year.

Twenty years ago, a Conservative government made Canada a shining example for the world by taking the lead with famine relief in Africa. How ironic it is that, today, a Liberal government is setting a very different example for the world by taking a big step toward making Canada a gated community.

Rick Goldman is refugee protection co-ordinator for the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes refugiees et immigrantes, a Quebec coalition of groups serving refugees and immigrants.

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