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Where is the ‘Safe’ in the Safe Third Country Agreement?

By: Mariana Guevara Hernandez

Canada is known to be a refugee ‘friendly’ country: in 2023 (Jan – Oct), 112,780 asylum claimants were processed. However, Canada is not as ‘friendly’ towards refugee seekers who have first arrived in the U.S. This is due to an agreement, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, between the U.S and Canada, which requires the refugee seeker to make their claim in the first ‘safe’ country they arrive at. 

However, not every asylum seeker wishes to stay in the U.S.A. for different political, economic, and social reasons. This agreement has only pushed asylum seekers to risk their lives trying to cross the U.S.–Canada border through irregular passing rather than staying in the U.S.

Instead of seeing refugees risk their lives trying to cross the border and forcing them to live in a place they do not feel comfortable in, the Canadian government should remove the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The Safe Third Country Agreement was signed between Canada and the U.S. in 2002 to manage access to the refugee system better and regulate the crossings at their shared land border. This agreement states that the refugees must ask for protection in the first country they arrive at, with some exceptions. Currently, Canada defines the U.S. as a ‘safe’ country. Therefore, if refugees arrive first in the U.S., they are forced to make their claim there and may no longer do it in Canada.

The original agreement stated that refugees would be rejected at official port crossings. This created a loophole where refugee seekers started crossing through unofficial ports of entry such as Roxham Road, Québec. In March 2023, this loophole was amended, and the agreement now covers the whole land border.

The Roxham Road case is often used as an example of why the agreement should be upheld. Before the amendment, the province of Québec saw an increase in the number of refugees they received. In 2022, 64% of asylum claims were made in Québec, which strained the education, housing and social systems. People claim that without the agreement, this would happen again, and refugees wouldn’t have a good quality of life.

However, this only happened because of the loophole in the agreement. If it were to be removed, the refugee intake would not concentrate on just a port of entry, but it would be distributed through the whole land border, and an official port of entry would be able to handle this.

The reality is that the irregular crossings have not been stopped; in 2023, 22,316 asylum claims were made by irregular crossers. What has changed is that refugees have chosen to cross through more dangerous parts of the border, willing to risk their lives. Like the story of Seidu Mohammed, who, fearing deportation in the U.S., almost froze to death and had to have his fingers amputated due to the frostbite he suffered once he managed to cross the border. Without the agreement, maybe Seidu would still have his fingers today.

Furthermore, the situation in the U.S. has clearly changed over the years. There has been a rise in polarization and xenophobia over the years. Their immigration policies have also changed, and the way that the U.S. has been seen to deal with immigrants is less than ideal. With the news breaking of the poor conditions of their detention centers, holding children in cages, mass deportation and the separation of families, it is understandable how asylum seekers would not longer feel safe there.  Yet, Canada keeps turning a blind eye.

As stated by the general secretary of Amnesty International Canada, the agreement endangers asylum seekers and puts them and their rights at risk.

People should not need to risk their lives just because it was ‘easier’ for them to arrive in the U.S. Asylum seekers should be able to choose where to start their new lives after uprooting their previous ones. They should feel safe in the new country and not have to decide to keep risking their lives because they arrived in ‘the wrong country.’ Canada should show its support for refugees by removing the Safe Third Country Agreement.