Lawyers call for changes to Safe Third Country Agreement amid refugee influx
Maple Leaf Motel's office is open in Emerson, Man. Thursday, February 9, 2016. Refugees have been crossing into Canada at Emerson and authorities had a town hall meeting in Emerson to discuss their options. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods)
Immigration lawyers say they've received an influx of requests from refugees in the U.S. hoping to seek asylum in Canada -- despite an agreement that makes it nearly impossible.
The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement requires people to apply for asylum in the first country where they arrive, unless an immediate family member lives in the other country.
The Canadian government has faced pressure to repeal the agreement since President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. But Canada's government has so far refused.
Alastair Clarke, of Clarke Immigration Law in Winnipeg, said that's a mistake. He said 10 new clients have been referred to him in the last week -- some of whom crossed the border on foot, successfully bypassing border points so they could make their refugee claims once already in the country.
It's a method police say is on the rise -- the RCMP said 21 people were arrested for illegally crossing the border into Emerson, Man., Saturday.
Clarke said it's putting people at risk.
"They're crossing farmer fields on foot," he added. "When it's -10, -15 with the wind chill factors, it's highly risky."
He noted that refugees are avoiding coming through border crossing points because they fear that if they get turned away from the border due to the Safe Third Country Agreement, they won't be able to file for refugee status in Canada later on.
He said the agreement should either be "repealed, amended or suspended."
"The refugees who are coming into Canada do not feel safe in the United States," he said.
The federal government did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday, but earlier this month, a spokesperson said the government wouldn't suspend the agreement.
"Our government has no indication that the executive order has any impact on the American asylum system," said the Feb. 1 statement from Nancy Caron.
Caron said the agreement is focused on how to handle people who show up at either land border to make asylum claims, not the resettled refugees covered by Trump's edict. Even if they were covered, the deal operates independently of any executive orders, she added.
Henry Giroux, an American-born cultural critic and professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, said it's no wonder refugees don't feel safe in the U.S.
"It seems to me that when you have seven countries largely populated by Muslims labelled as terrorist countries, when in fact almost none of those countries has actually been responsible for a terrorist act in the United States, it instills an enormous amount of fear in people. An enormous amount of insecurity," he said.
Zool Suleman, of Suleman and Co. in Vancouver, said he's heard from people other than those who would have been affected by the executive order.
"It's not as simple as, 'I'm a new refugee to America and I want to come to Canada.' There is such a group, but there's another group of people who arrived in America from very difficult situations years ago, who now have lives in America," he said.
He said he's received calls from people who were originally from Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa. It's not just claimants from Muslim-majority countries.
"I'm hearing from people who are already in America and do not feel that they will get a fair hearing. And there has been a noticeable increase in these types of calls since the executive orders took place."
Suleman said his responses to callers vary case-by-case, but he said he has to warn them about the Safe Third Country Agreement.
"I think the Canadian government should seriously explore if the Safe Third Country Agreement is a viable option," he said. "Increasingly this problem is going to be on the front pages, and I think our government needs to look at some sort of humanitarian response."
Trump's executive order was suspended by a judge pending a legal challenge in the U.S. courts.