Taking it to the court: challenging Canada’s complicity in the ill-treatment of refugees

Today marked the first day of a week-long hearing, in which the applicants – Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches, and individual refugee claimants – are challenging the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (the STCA) in Federal Court before Justice Ann Marie McDonald.

“Year after year, month after month, Canada willfully turns its back on refugee claimants at the border.”

The applicants’ opening remarks, delivered by Mr. Andrew Brouwer, set the stage for the day’s arguments, which reviewed the facts, the evidence and administrative law issues.

Bolstered by an enthusiastic crowd who gathered in solidarity during a lunch-time rally outside the courthouse, the magnitude of this case was not lost on any attendees today. This case is important. It comes on the heels of several years of work from advocates calling for a suspension of the STCA in light of the United States’ failure to adequately protect refugee claimants.

As it stands, the STCA requires refugee claimants who arrive in Canada or the U.S. to request protection in the first country where they set foot. This means that, with limited exceptions, the STCA bars people from seeking refugee protection in Canada at a border crossing if they first went through the U.S.

A safe third country agreement relies on the idea that both countries in question will guarantee the rights and necessary protections of refugees and asylum seekers, as is required by international law.

But can we really say that the US is a safe place for refugees?

The current Canada-US STCA was put in place in 2004. Since then, the deficiencies in the U.S. refugee system and prevalence of human rights violations have intensified, particularly as a result of harsh and xenophobic policies implemented under President Donald Trump’s administration. By designating the U.S. as a safe place for refugees under the STCA, Canada is complicit in the U.S.’ ill-treatment of refugee claimants.

This week, the Federal Court will hear evidence demonstrating that when refugee claimants are turned away at Canadian borders and sent back to be subjected to the flawed U.S. refugee system, they face detention (often indefinite in nature), family separation, and serious ill-treatment. These conditions place individuals at a further risk of being refused refugee status and returned to the very countries they fled because their lives are at risk. As audiences in the courtroom learned today, the risks are heightened for women fleeing gender-based violence given that current U.S. policy essentially closes the door on their refugee claims.

Amnesty International, along with other public interest groups and refugee rights advocates have come together to assert that the continued application of the STCA violates the rights to equality and life, liberty and security of the person under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as Canada’s obligations under international law.

All are welcome to join us at the Federal Court in Toronto (180 Queen Street West) from November 4-8, 2019, or click here to learn more and take action to call on Canada to suspend the STCA.