Today is World Refugee Day. It’s a day to celebrate the accomplishments of the refugee community while discussing ways in which we solve the global refugee crisis.
Today, there are 68.5 million refugees worldwide.
Today, the US is criminalizing people for exercising their human right to seek refuge. Housing asylum seekers in federal prison. Ripping screaming children from the arms of horrified parents.
Today is a dark day.
The US has shown us that there are no ends to its cruelty. Six weeks ago, Jeff Sessions announced the “zero tolerance” policy, targeting any person who crosses the US border illegally. This has resulted in children being separated from their parents and almost every asylum case being referred for criminal prosecution. The US is jailing people simply because they are seeking refuge. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers were ordered to blatantly rip children (as young as 7 months old) away from their parents. Children are held in detention centres in Texas (aka glorified prisons) and some children are put in wire cages. Hundreds of separated children will never be reunited with their parents. These children will become wards of the state; forever lost in the system.
While Trump signed an executive order today that will “keep families together,” this doesn’t change how the US deals with people at the border. All this means is that the US will imprison children in the same internment camps as their parents. To deem this acceptable it to accept the continued degradation, humiliation and mistreatment of thousands.
America, today, is horrifying. And Canada must do something.
The Safe Third Country Agreement.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Canada must suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).
The STCA is a bilateral agreement between the US and Canada, which denies people from making refugee claims at our shared border. That is, if you are fleeing persecution from your home country, but come through the US, you can’t make a refugee claim at an official port of entry in Canada. There is a single loophole in the legislation, which allows asylum seekers coming from the US to make a refugee claim only once they are inside Canada. This has led to tens of thousands of people making the treacherous cross border journey; risking their lives walking through fields and forests – some losing limbs to frostbite and being rescued by the police - to make a refugee claim.
If the STCA works the way it is envisioned by our governments - and it does - asylum seekers coming to Canada from the US face a horrific fate. For example, a mother and her two kids flee to the US from Colombia out of fear of persecution. When they continue their journey north to Canada, they would arrive at the Canadian border only to be sent back to the US. We can expect that the US would initiate deportation proceedings against her, forcing her to return to the country the woman risked her life to escape. Alternatively, she would face the unbearable punishment of having her two children ripped from her arms and lodged in cages, not knowing if she would ever see them again.
Back in 2004, this agreement was put in place based on the assumption that both Canada and the US were havens, i.e. safe, for refugees. Canada's immigration legislation indicates that, in determining whether a country should be designated as "safe" for refugees, consideration must be given to the country's human rights record and to whether the country complies with the 1951 Refugee Convention and the Convention against Torture.
There may come a time when the US is indeed a safe haven for asylum seekers, but that time is not now. There is nothing safe about the US under the Presidency of Donald Trump, certainly not for refugees.
America is not safe for refugees.
In 2007, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) and Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) launched a challenge against the constitutionality of the STCA. The Federal Court struck down the Agreement. While it was later reversed on appeal, the Federal Court found the STCA was discriminatory (allowing asylum seekers to launch a refugee claim only if they enter Canada in a certain manner) and finding the US had repeatedly failed to comply with its human rights obligations under international conventions.
Since 2007, nothing in the US – no policy, no leadership, no best practice – has improved the conditions for refugees. In fact, it is very clear that conditions have drastically deteriorated since Trump’s inauguration. Time and time again, Trump has shown the world his disdain for migrants. He showed us when he issued the Muslim Ban; an executive order barring entry to the US for nationals of seven Muslim majority countries as well as suspending the entire refugee program. He showed us this when he began holding asylum seekers in federal prison. And he showed us this six weeks ago, when he ordered officers to separate families at the border.
We need to stop peddling the narrative that the US is a “safe” place for refugees. There is overwhelming evidence to support this, and nothing to suggest otherwise. American immigration policies remain harmful, unfair and unlawful. Standing by, twiddling our thumbs, and maintaining that the US is "safe" is appalling. Not only is it incorrect and dishonest, it is simply unlawful under Canada’s Charter and our international law obligations.
When asked about the US’s new practice of ripping migrant children from their parents and lodging them in prisons called detention centres, Prime Minister Trudeau said he wouldn’t “play politics.” But idly standing by, leaving our border impermeable and turning away deserving applicants (ineligible not on the merits, but on the procedure), while such atrocities happen in the US is a very, very political move. Inaction is just as powerful as action.
If Trudeau genuinely believes that his decision not to engage isn’t a political move, doesn’t that make it all the worse? He shouted his outrage when Trump declared an increase on tariffs for Canadian steel and immediately responded in a strong policy of our own. Yet, when Trudeau hears about migrant children being ripped apart from their parents, he doesn’t want to get involved?
Perhaps Trudeau isn’t “playing politics” because, rightfully so, this isn’t a political issue. This is a human rights issue; a moral issue. All the more reason to act. But Trudeau offers us the usual menu: silence or platitudes.
I will never understand how someone, watching atrocity after atrocity, who is able to alleviate suffering, chooses to do nothing. To turn their back on the faces of grief stricken victims fleeing violence. To plug their ears on the echoes of children’s screams. To know that the entire procedure of asylum seekers irregularly crossing the border – risking their safety, liberty and lives – could simply be eliminated if they chose to suspend a bilateral agreement…
On Canada’s Conscience.
Prime Minister Trudeau and the Honourable Hussein need to suspend the STCA. There are several areas in immigration/refugee law in which Canada falls short, but I believe this needs to be the first piece of reform. This is what covers the gash, what stops the bleeding. It doesn’t heal the wound, but it is necessary to get things under control. The US is bleeding out with its inhumane policies, and Canada can cover the bleeding by suspending the STCA.
When asked about the America’s policy of separating children from parents at the border, Trudeau said: “Obviously this is not the way we do things in Canada.”
Is standing by and averting our gaze from human rights atrocities ‘the way we do things?’