OTTAWA - The Federal Court of Appeal has put a freeze on a recent ruling that overturned a controversial refugee pact between Canada and the United States.
In a decision Thursday, Chief Justice John Richard said there should be a full airing of arguments before the Safe Third Country Agreement is suspended.
Under the agreement, which took effect in December 2004, Canada and the U.S. recognize each other as safe places to seek protection.
It means Canada can turn back potential refugees at the Canada-U.S. border on the basis they must pursue their claims in the U.S., the country where they first arrived.
Canadian refugee advocates have vigorously fought the deal, arguing the U.S. is not always a safe country for people fleeing persecution.
Critics say claimants, including children, are often imprisoned for months or even years south of the border while their applications are processed.
In addition, more restrictive American rules and interpretation of who qualifies as a refugee mean that in the past some rejected by the U.S. were later accepted by Canada.
The Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches and Amnesty International successfully contested the agreement in Federal Court.
In a November decision, Justice Michael Phelan ruled the federal cabinet exceeded its jurisdiction in adopting the new system, saying the U.S. does not comply with United Nations conventions concerning the status of refugees and prohibition of torture.
He also concluded the return of a refugee claimant to the U.S. from Canada violated Charter of Rights guarantees of equality and life, liberty and security.
The government asked the Court of Appeal to put the ruling on hold, arguing a sudden end to the Safe Third Country Agreement would prompt an influx of refugees into Canada from the United States, overwhelming border officers.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Council for Refugees, was dismayed by the latest decision.
"Obviously we're extremely disappointed and actually shocked that the court would put the administrative convenience of the government over the lives of refugees," she said.
"We know that people do come up to the border, are turned back and end up deported to their country of origin."
Among the council's submissions to the court was an affidavit from a woman whose husband was killed in Honduras after being detained at the Canadian border, sent back to the United States and deported.
Richard noted in his ruling, however, that there was no evidence that the man made a refugee claim in the U.S. or of the circumstances surrounding his deportation.
Still, Dench pointed to the case Thursday as reason to be worried.
"The stakes are really high," she said. "We don't know for sure in coming months whether this will happen to other people. But there's certainly a very real possibility that people will end up being sent back to face persecution, torture or even death."
In 2006, some 400 people were turned away at the Canadian border based on the Safe Third Country provisions.
Dench noted the Court of Appeal has agreed to an expedited review, but the hearing is likely some months away and a decision many months after that.
"It's not a good day."
Despite the ruling Thursday, New Democrat MP Olivia Chow said she would try next week to put a motion before the Commons immigration committee to end the Safe Third Country agreement.
If successful, the motion would go to the full Commons for a vote, potentially pre-empting the coming appeal hearing.