Tuesday, February 6, 2007

U.S. no safe haven for refugees, court told

Last Updated: Monday, February 5, 2007 | 2:15 PM ET

Canada should not view the United States as a safe haven for refugees, immigration and human rights organizations argued Monday in a Toronto federal court.

Under the terms of the "safe third country" agreement, refugees make their claims in the first of the two countries they enter. That means claimants trying to enter Canada through the United States would be turned back and told to make their claims in the U.S.

Critics have said the pact, which has been in effect since 2002, encourages more people to try to enter the country illegally and is unfair because the U.S. system is tougher than Canada's refugee process.

The Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches launched the challenge, arguing the U.S. does not comply with the Convention against Torture and the Refugee Convention.

Janet Dench, spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for Refugees, cited Maher Arar's deportation to Syria and subsequent torture as an illustration of the treatment refugees could face from U.S. authorities in the post-9/11 era.

"In the law, a safe third country is one that complies with its obligations to refugees and doesn't send anyone back to torture," Dench told CBC News Monday.

"Well, we know the United States does send people back to torture. We know it happened to a Canadian citizen."

She said refugees face other barriers in the U.S., such as the one-year deadline to file a refugee claim, excessive use of detention and broad interpretations of provisions excluding refugees who are deemed to have provided "material support" to terrorist organizations.

Many who fall into the latter category were coerced or threatened in their home countries to give money, Dench added.

"You have a gun against your head and somebody says, 'Give us money or we'll shoot you,' " she said. "If you've done this, according to the United States, you're not eligible for asylum because you've given support to terrorists."