Ottawa mulls options on refugee agreement
The Canadian Press
December 1, 2007
OTTAWA -- Armed with a major court victory, advocates urged the federal government yesterday to scrap a deal that sees Canada turn refugee claimants back to the U.S. to face deportation and possible torture in their home countries.
Opposition MPs, Amnesty International and other groups called on Ottawa to scrap the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement after a Federal Court judge ruled it violates refugee rights. The government says the deal remains in effect while it mulls its response.
"We're considering the options now," said Citizenship and Immigration spokeswoman Karen Shadd-Evelyn. "The court has given the parties time to make submissions regarding an appeal."
Lawyers for both sides have until Jan. 14 to file papers for a final court order, which would likely strike down the agreement based on the judge's reasons. It will then be up to Ottawa to decide whether to appeal the outcome - a move that could take years to ultimately clear the Supreme Court of Canada.
Mr. Justice Michael Phelan of the Federal Court said the U.S. can't be considered a "safe country" for asylum seekers from such countries as Haiti, for example, because it doesn't comply with international refugee protections against torture.
Unlike the U.S., Canada will not deport back to Haiti.
Judge Phelan also said the deal is unfair because it turns back claimants who arrive from the United States by land, while those who fly to Canada can stay to make their case.
Rather than appeal the ruling, refugee advocates say Canada should reassert its traditional role of defending some of the world's most vulnerable people.
"We have a judgment that in clear, stark, detailed ways highlights the multiplicity of human-rights violations and shortcomings in the refugee system that await asylum claimants who are turned away from the Canadian border and forced into the U.S.," said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.
U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins countered in a statement yesterday that his country "has a proud record of accepting and protecting refugees, defending human rights and adhering to our treaty obligations.
"Last year alone, the United States accepted more refugees for resettlement than any other country, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees," Mr. Wilkins said.
However, the UN refugee agency also spoke out in October against Canada's practice of summarily sending refugee claimants back to the U.S. - even when they're entitled to seek asylum here.
The practice again made headlines when four refugees from Haiti and one from El Salvador were sent back to the U.S. on Oct. 8 from the Lacolle, Que., border point near Montreal. Two of the five were later detained in the United States, said the UN high commissioner's office, making it difficult for advocates to track their fate.
NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow has already submitted a motion seeking support from the Commons all-party citizenship and immigration committee to support scrapping the safe third country deal.
The 2004 Safe Third Country Agreement struck under the former Liberal government was billed as a means of allowing both Canada and the U.S. to better manage the flow of asylum seekers.