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Asylum seekers wait to cross into Canada from the US

Asylum seekers wait to cross the Canada-U.S. border near Champlain, New York on August 6, 2017. (Photo: Geoff Robins/AFP via Getty Images)

Advocates Tell Canada's High Court to End Asylum Deal With US Over Safety Concerns

"The United States is not a safe place for refugee claimants escaping persecution," said one human rights campaigner.

Julia Conley

Immigrant rights advocates on Thursday called on the Supreme Court of Canada to terminate an agreement between the country and the U.S. which allows Canadian officials to turn refugees away if they attempt to enter the country at its southern border, arguing that Canada cannot send people in need of protection to the U.S. without potentially violating its human rights obligations.

Since 2004 Canada and the U.S. have observed the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) over the objections of rights groups. The pact states that asylum seekers who enter Canada from the U.S. at official border crossings will be sent back to the U.S., and vice versa, with both countries presumed to follow international refugee laws.

"Canadians want Canada to live up to its human rights responsibilities and to be generous in welcoming refugees."

The Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International Canada, and the Canadian Council of Churches argued in court on Thursday that the agreement "is built on a false premise," even with a Democratic president in office.

"The United States is not a safe place for refugee claimants escaping persecution," said Aleks Dughman Manzur, president of the Canadian Council for Refugees, in a statement. "Despite the change in administration in the U.S., people sent back to the U.S. under the STCA continue to be at high risk of detention in abhorrent conditions. And some, including people facing gender-based persecution, are unfairly denied protection in the U.S. and sent back into danger in their countries of origin—a clear violation of their basic human rights."

The groups were joined in the case by eight individuals, including a Salvadoran woman and her children, who escaped gender-based persecution and gang violence, and a Muslim woman from Ethiopia who left her home country out of fear of persecution due to her ethnicity.

Outside the court, people rallied in support of terminating the STCA with the U.S., with some holding signs reading, "The USA is not safe for refugees."

Advocates have previously called on Canada to terminate the STCA in 2007 and 2017. The latest call comes two years after a report by Human Rights Watch showed that the U.S. has for years sent asylum seekers back to their home country of El Salvador, and after the U.S. sent dozens of refugees back to Cameroon despite the danger of arbitrary detention, torture, and violence that they faced there.

The Biden administration has also unlawfully detained tens of thousands of asylum seekers, many of whom have reported sexual, physical, and verbal abuse; solitary confinement; medical neglect; and denial of basic necessities.

"The Canadian government cannot escape responsibility for the predictable outcomes of deflecting asylum seekers into this system, even though it studiously avoids monitoring the safety of the U.S. asylum system," wrote law professors Efrat Arbel and Audrey Macklin on Wednesday in the Vancouver Sun.

The STCA puts tens of thousands of refugees at risk of such mistreatment, the advocates told Canada's top court, as well as putting the country at risk of violating international refugee law, which states that refugees cannot be sent to countries where they may face persecution.

The agreement with the U.S. violates the Canadian constitution, they said, which affirms the right to "life, liberty, and security of the person."

"We are our sister's and our brother's keeper," said Pastor Peter Noteboom, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches. "Canadians want Canada to live up to its human rights responsibilities and to be generous in welcoming refugees."

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