Trump-led US is not ‘safe’ for refugees

By Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada
The heartbreaking absurdity of the fact that Canada continues to maintain that the United States is a ‘safe’ country for refugees was apparent with every interview, observation or meeting I had as our six-country Amnesty International delegation moved along the US/Mexico border this past week.
Far from being safe, it is beyond question that the frightening reality for refugees and migrants in the United States is one of unrelenting human rights violations.  Rather than pretending otherwise, it is time for Canada to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement that shuts down access to official border posts for refugee claimants crossing into the country from the United States.  Instead, Canada should be exerting all possible pressure on the Trump Administration to end the deepening and dehumanizing assault on the safety and dignity of refugees and migrants.
A safe country?  Certainly not the experience of the three LGBT teens who have fled frightening violence and discrimination in Honduras and needed the protective presence of twenty international observers, including our Amnesty delegation, simply to make sure that US border guards at the crossing between Tijuana and San Ysidro did not unlawfully turn them away as they tried to lodge their claims for asylum.  They were allowed in but only after a tense standoff and threats from both US and Mexican officials.  They have now disappeared into the harrowing world of US immigration detention.
A safe country?  That is most assuredly not the word that Valquiria would use.  Having fled terrifying threats of violence from criminal gangs in Brazil, she and her young son were detained as soon as they made their asylum claims at the Ciudad Juárez/El Paso border.  But US officials forcibly separated her from 7-year-old Abel the next day.  She has not seen her son, now residing with his father in Boston, for more than ten months and has no idea when they might be reunited.  Her sobs as she described the agonizing pain of being apart from him brought all of us to tears.
Those two accounts are not the exception. They are the norm.  The US asylum and immigration enforcement system has deteriorated to such an extent that its entrenched hallmarks have become cruelty, punishment, arbitrariness and a wholesale lack of accountability.
While we were at the border one more mean-spirited layer kicked-in.  Expected for some time, the US has now put into force the cruelly-misnamed Migrant Protection Protocols, under which many asylum-seekers will be forced back into Mexico to wait out the processing of their claims.  But the average processing time is close to two years; and Mexico is a notoriously perilous country for many of those who will be returned, particularly Central Americans.  These forcible returns stand to violate the most essential right enshrined in international refugee law, the protection against refoulement to danger.
It has echoes of the Canada/US agreement, only this time it is the United States essentially declaring Mexico to be safe.  One wonders if dominoes of designating safe third countries might start to cascade southwards.
In his single-minded campaign to secure billions of dollars to build his infamous and cruel wall, Donald Trump repeatedly insists that the US faces a crisis at the border with Mexico.  Crisis yes, but it is a human rights crisis, not a national security emergency.
And how should Canada respond to our neighbour’s human rights crisis?
Lifting the Safe Third Country Agreement would mean desperate refugees are not forced to turn to irregular and potentially dangerous border crossings to be able to make claims for protection in Canada.
Lifting the Safe Third Country Agreement would mean that the toxic and inflammatory accusations of “illegal” queue-jumpers would subside as refugee claimants overwhelming instead turn to official border posts to make their claims.
And lifting the Safe Third Country Agreement would mean that Canada could credibly stand up for the rights of LGBT teens seeking safety and mothers forcibly separated from their children in immigration detention, rather than silently siding with the US authorities who cavalierly torment and punish them.
What will it take and how much worse must it get, before Canada does the right thing?
The denial and the excuses must end now.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Toronto Star.