The US is less safe than ever for refugees, evidence filed in court challenge shows

The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), Amnesty International (AI) and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) yesterday completed filing extensive evidence in Federal Court to support their legal challenge of the designation of the United States as a safe third country for refugees.
“Canadians have seen over the last few weeks how refugees are treated heartlessly in the US under President Trump: children separated from their parents, long-term detention in horrific conditions, criminal prosecution of people just for crossing the border to seek safety, new policies closing the door on women fleeing gender-based violence,” said Claire Roque, CCR President. “The conclusion is clear: the US cannot be considered a safe country for refugees.”
Through the court case, the organizations are arguing that sending refugee claimants back to the US violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canada’s binding international human rights obligations. Because the US system fails in many ways to protect refugees, people turned back from Canada under the Safe Third Country Agreement are at risk of being sent in turn by the US to face persecution, torture and even death in their home countries. This is contrary to their Charter right to life, liberty and security of the person. More immediately, the right to liberty of many of those sent back to the US is violated when they are arbitrarily detained in immigration detention centres or county jails, often in atrocious conditions and in clear contravention of international standards.
The organizations have also presented evidence that women are disproportionately harmed by being sent back to the US, in violation of their Charter right to equal treatment under the law.
“The Government of Canada should first ensure all people in Canada have access to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Peter Noteboom, General Secretary of The Canadian Council of Churches. “The best way to accomplish that for refugees is to remove the disincentive of the US-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement, instead welcoming those who are fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries at regular border crossings.”
The organizations have, since January 2017, been calling on the government to stop returning refugee claimants to human rights abuses in the US by withdrawing immediately from the Safe Third Country Agreement. In filing this extensive evidence, the CCR, AI and the CCC are renewing and intensifying that call. It should not be necessary to conduct long and expensive litigation to end these rights violations when it is so clear that the US is not safe and, if anything, is becoming increasingly dangerous for refugees.
“Canadians have watched with mounting anguish as the cruel assault on the rights of refugees and migrants, including babies and children, has deepened rapidly in the United States over the past eighteen months,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. “Across the country there has been a sense of despair and helplessness. But there is something concrete that Canada can and must do in response. Lifting the Safe Third Country Agreement would send an important message that Canada is not prepared to ignore and overlook the mounting human rights crisis faced by refugees and migrants in the United States and that the Canadian government is committed to ensuring that at the United States’ northern border – unlike the southern – regard for human rights will prevail.”
Under the Safe Third Country Agreement refugees who present themselves at a Canada-US border post seeking to make a refugee claim in Canada are, with limited exceptions, denied access to the Canadian refugee system and immediately returned to the United States. Since the Agreement does not apply to people who cross into Canada other than at an official border post, people in need of safety in Canada have been crossing in increased numbers irregularly, sometimes at peril of their lives, particularly in winter. Withdrawing from the Agreement would not only be consistent with Canada’s human rights commitments, but would also allow people to present themselves in an orderly way at ports of entry, ending irregular crossings and dangerous journeys.
In July 2017, the three organizations joined an individual litigant and her children who are asking the Federal Court to strike down the Safe Third Country Agreement and allow her to make a refugee claim in Canada. In December 2017, the Federal Court granted the organizations public interest standing. The litigation is still in the preliminary stages and a hearing is scheduled for January 2019.
For more information
Backgrounder: Why the US is not safe for refugees: challenging the Safe Third Country Agreement