Deadline for Safe Third Country Agreement approaches

Posted by admin on Dec 28th, 2004

Globe and Mail, 28 December 2004
Lisa Preist

At midnight tonight, a controversial agreement designed to stop ”asylum shopping” comes into effect, which essentially closes the door to would-be refugees travelling to Canada from foreign countries via the United States.

The Safe Third Country Agreement — part of a bilateral deal to improve security and efficiency at the border — requires asylum seekers to ask for protection in the first country they reach. That means Canada will require that refugee claimants from “third countries” seek asylum in the United States if that is where they landed first. The agreement has prompted a spike in refugee claimants.

“Things have been chaotic, just as we predicted,” Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said in a telephone interview from Montreal yesterday. “. . . For the governments to have implemented [the agreement] in this rash rush in the depth of the holiday season is virtually incomprehensible.”

At Toronto’s Romero House, not only are its four shelters full, but its offices were also turned into a makeshift shelter over the weekend. Some families have agreed to house the refugee-claimant overflow.

“People do open their homes and their hearts. We had people arrive the morning of the 24th. By that evening, we had enough gifts for everybody,” Mary Jo Leddy, director of Romero House, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “And we have just arranged for two groups of people to move into homes in the Oakville area.”

At Vive la Casa refugee shelter in Buffalo, N.Y., just 15 kilometres from the border, “we’ve been full for so long that we’re basically searching the community to try to find space to set up an additional emergency housing,” Ron Smith, its interim executive director, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Border entry points other than busy Fort Erie have the capacity to process these refugee claimants, but not all asylum seekers want to go to them. They fear they will be directed back to the United States and risk being detained, Ms. Dench said.

“The system at the border has become extremely disorganized and disadvantageous to refugee claimants,” she said yesterday. “Many of them have become quite desperate.”

Hundreds of refugee claimants who were massed at the U.S.-Canada border at the Peace Bridge in Fort Erie last week, were put on school buses and directed back to the United States because there were too many to process. Canadian Immigration officials spent Boxing Day processing 297 of them, many of whom were given eligibility hearing dates over the next three months. They will not be affected by the new rules.

Canada is an attractive place for refugee claimants, due to a generous social service system, a multicultural outlook and what is perceived to be a higher acceptance rate.

In truth, this country’s 41-per-cent acceptance rate for refugees only slightly exceeds that of the United States, with 37 per cent.

However, for specific groups of refugees — such as Colombians — there is a marked difference, with an 81-per-cent acceptance rate, compared with 36 per cent south of the border. As well, claimants are far less likely to be detained in Canada.

Many Colombians are fleeing their country’s four-decade-long civil war that has claimed 200,000 lives.

Richard St. Louis of Immigration Canada has said that by requiring would-be refugees to seek asylum in the first country they reach, the agreement would prevent them from “choosing the best of both worlds” by making claims in the United States and Canada

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