Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel says the government has been “dishonest” with Canadians with its defence of the Safe Third Country Agreement even after departmental officials advised it was “no longer working as intended.”
Global News reported last week that officials from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada had advised Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen to raise the Safe Third Country Agreement as a key issue at a meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. The memo, prepared in January 2018 ahead of the later-cancelled meeting, also said the minister should discuss plans to create a steering committee tasked with addressing “immigration issues.”
“With the recent influx of asylum seekers to Canada, the Safe Third Country Agreement is no longer working as intended,” the memo prepared for Hussen states.
“Asylum seekers are evading the Canada-United States Safe Third Country Agreement by crossing into Canada between ports of entry where the agreement does not apply. This has brought to our attention gaps that may be creating a pull factor for people to cross illegally into Canada.”
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That memo from the department came months before both Hussen and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly defended it against questions on whether the agreement needed to be changed to better address the flow of tens of thousands of migrants crossing the border at unofficial points of entry.
Trudeau said in the House of Commons on May 1, 2018, that the agreement “allows for good management of asylum requests.”
Hussen, also on the same day, praised the agreement as a “great tool” and “amazing experience.”
Rempel says the positive tone struck by the government on the agreement — despite what departmental officials were saying — should concern Canadians.
“They are being dishonest in this conversation,” Rempel said in an interview with Global News.
“They know Canadian public sentiment on this issue, particularly new Canadian communities on this issue … is that people expect fair and orderly migration and this is not being seen. The way that they’re facilitating this is not fair and orderly.”
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For months, the government has said it is discussing ways to “modernize” the agreement with American counterparts but offered few details as to whether it is getting anywhere with the talks or clearer details on what specific changes it would like to see.
When asked repeatedly whether he believed the agreement was still working as intended, Border Security Minister Bill Blair’s office acknowledged last week that “we are in a different environment than we were when the agreement was signed in 2004,” but would not specifically address the question.
Responsibility for the Safe Third Country Agreement transferred to Blair when he was named to the newly-created position last fall.
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The Safe Third Country Agreement is a deal between Canada and the U.S. in which both countries recognize each other as “safe” countries for asylum seekers to submit a claim. As part of that, asylum seekers must make their claim in the first safe country in which they arrive.
That means an asylum seeker who lands in the U.S. must make a claim in the U.S. and cannot head to a Canadian border checkpoint to submit an application for asylum there — but a loophole means the claimant can do exactly that by being intercepted while crossing the border at unofficial points of entry.
More than 36,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada irregularly from the U.S, since the start of 2017.
Less than a quarter have been dealt with, as of December 2018.
A poll by Ipsos conducted exclusively for Global News in January 2019 found Canadians have stronger negative views of immigration than they did in 2017, with 54 per cent of respondents saying they believe Canada is too welcoming to immigrants.
However, the poll indicated the concerns of Canadians tend to be more focused on whether the processes immigrants go through before being allowed to come to Canada are actually working, and less focused on the immigrants themselves.
Rempel said conversations with constituents and Canadians on immigration also suggest their concerns centre on whether the government is able to find a solution to fixing a problem flagged by its own department.
“I want to be very clear,” she said. “I do not believe that we should be having a conversation in Canada about if we should allow immigration. One of my former colleagues is flirting with that right now. I’m not going there. That is not my belief. So now we have to have a conversation about how.”
Rempel has pushed the government to amend the deal to apply the provisions across the entire border, which would mean no matter at which point asylum seekers cross, their claim would not be considered if they came directly from the U.S., where they should have first made their claim.
Jenny Kwan, NDP immigration critic, also expressed concern about the memo but said the only solution is to suspend the agreement.
“Of course the STCA is not working ‘as intended,'” she said. “As I’ve been saying since January 2017, the United States under President Donald Trump is not a safe country for asylum seekers. … The only change that can be made to the STCA that respects the humanity of asylum seekers and allows Canada to live up to its domestic and international obligations is to suspend the agreement.”
Doing so would allow asylum seekers already in the U.S. to make applications to come to Canada at regular border checkpoints.
Kwan has argued that because of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, the U.S. cannot be considered safe for asylum seekers to get fair consideration for their claims.
Canadian officials did review their classification of the U.S. as a safe third country in early 2017.
The conclusion of that review was that the U.S. “continues to meet the requirements for designation as a safe third country.”