A family, claiming to be from Columbia, is arrested by RCMP officers as they cross the border into Canada from the United States as asylum seekers, on April 18, 2018. near Champlain, N.Y. A long-awaited legal look into whether the U.S. remains a safe country for refugees begins today at a Federal Court in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

A family, claiming to be from Columbia, is arrested by RCMP officers as they cross the border into Canada from the United States as asylum seekers, on April 18, 2018. near Champlain, N.Y. A long-awaited legal look into whether the U.S. remains a safe country for refugees begins today at a Federal Court in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Court to hear case on whether asylum agreement with U.S. violates charter

The U.S. has tightened its asylum rules and regulations in recent years

A long-awaited legal look into whether the U.S. remains a safe country for refugees begins today at a Federal Court in Toronto.

At issue is the Safe Third Country Agreement that prohibits people from entering Canada from the U.S. — and vice versa — at official border crossings and asking for asylum. It was signed by the two countries 17 years ago on the grounds that both are safe places and so those seeking sanctuary should apply in the first country they arrive in.

But as the U.S. has tightened its asylum rules and regulations in recent years, the deal has come under intense scrutiny over concerns that actions taken by the Trump administration no longer make the U.S. a safe harbour for those seeking asylum.

In turn, when Canada rejects people at the border, their charter rights are being violated, advocacy groups and the individual litigant in the case will argue this week as the Federal Court finally hears the challenge begun in 2017.

“Refugee claimants are being detained indefinitely, in conditions that are nothing short of cruel and unusual, simply for seeking protection,” reads one of the memos submitted to the court.

The legal challenge to the agreement was filed after a Salvadoran woman tried to enter Canada at an official border crossing to seek asylum, arguing she was being brutally targeted by gangs at home. She was told she was inadmissible because of the deal.

Her attempt to enter Canada came as then newly-elected U.S. President Donald Trump was unveiling a series of changes to the U.S. immigration system, including an attempt to ban immigrants from Muslim countries and lifting stays on deportations to Central American nations.

READ MORE: Asylum claims dipped last month but numbers remain up over last year

The measures set off shock waves not just in the U.S. but also in Canada, even among those who don’t work in the immigration field, said Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, one of the groups challenging the agreement in court.

“Many Canadians … instinctively felt it didn’t make sense for Canada to be hitching its wagon to the United States in this way and be sending people back to the U.S. when they could see there was such a lack of attention to the basic rights,” she said.

While political pressure began building for changes to the deal, the CCR and others also decided to test it in court and worked to find an asylum seeker who had been turned away.

Since the case was launched, restrictions on asylum have tightened even further, including a decision in 2018 by the U.S. attorney general to deny asylum claims based on domestic violence. One of the arguments in the case is that decision effectively leads to discrimination towards refugee applicants on the basis of their gender, which would violate the charter.

But the federal government argues that position, and others taken by the applicants, relate to developments in the U.S. refugee system that don’t apply in the case at hand. The U.S. system still functions, they argue, and the government wants the case dismissed.

“Claimants are returned to a highly developed asylum system that grants protection to large numbers of persons every year, and is subject to both administrative and judicial checks and balances,” lawyers for the Immigration and Public Safety ministries wrote in their submission to the Federal Court.

“Many of the concerns raised by the applicants have been limited by American courts or are still undergoing legal challenges, have no application to (Safe Third Country Agreement) returnees, and/or do not preclude access to protection.”

The applicants hope the court either suspends the deal or forces it to be amended in such a way that allows those seeking asylum to ask for it.

It doesn’t mean asylum will be granted, said Justin Mohammed, Amnesty International Canada’s human rights, law and policy campaigner. The goal is just for people to have a way to ask.

Some 45,000 people have found a way in the last two years by crossing into Canada from the U.S. between formal border offices to claim asylum.

The subsequent pressure that placed on immigration and social services has made the agreement a political flash point, with New Democrats and Conservatives demanding the agreement be amended or suspended. During the recent election campaign, the Liberals promised they would work with the U.S. to try and “modernize” the deal.

What that means is unclear, Mohammed said. His organization is one of the applicants in the case.

“We have been trying to work with the government and see what could be done in order to alleviate the problems that are created by the Safe Third Country Agreement particularly in the context of the Trump administration policies that they’ve been rolling out,” he said.

“That lack of political appetite is exactly why we had felt compelled to go to the courts.”

It’s not the first time the agreement has been subject to legal scrutiny. In 2007, it was also challenged in Federal Court, and the U.S. was declared not safe for refugees, but the decision was overturned on appeal.

This week’s hearing is expected to run until Friday.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The real estate market in the Cowichan Valley is suffering a lack of inventory making it a seller’s market. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Sellers rejoice, home buyers frustrated as prices up, inventory low in Cowichan Valley

Demand for homes in the Cowichan Valley is exceeding supply, driving up… Continue reading

Open as of April 17, Mountain Man Ice Cream, at 99 South Shore Road, is run by the Robertson family including Myles and Austin Robertson, as well as Brianne Thomassen. (Sarah Simpson/Citizen)
Sweet new business opens its doors in Lake Cowichan

Mountain Man Ice Cream, located at 99 South Shore Rd.

Vandals burned a hole in the platform at the top of the Somenos Marsh Open Air Classroom early on the morning of Thursday, April 22. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Arson closes Somenos Marsh viewing platform

Fletcher estimates the damage at more than $5,000.

Pharmacist Barbara Violo arranges empty vials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine that she has provided to customers at the Junction Chemist, an independent pharmacy in Toronto, Monday, April 19, 2021. Younger Canadians in several provinces are now able to get the AstraZeneca vaccine. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
AstraZeneca vaccine appointments fill up fast on Vancouver Island

More pharmacies expected to be added as supply increases

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map shows new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 11-17. (BCCDC image)
BCCDC says fresh COVID-19 cases down in most Island Health areas

Nanaimo sees its fewest new COVID-19 cases since mid January

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

MLA Shirley Bond, right, answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on February 19, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Former B.C. gaming minister says she wasn’t told directly about dirty cash flowing to casinos

Shirley Bond said Thursday civil forfeiture, gang violence and gambling addiction were also major concerns in 2011

RCMP Constable Etsell speaks to tourists leaving the area at a police roadblock on Westside Road south of Fintry, B.C., Thursday, July 23, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Yvonne Berg
B.C. police say they take ‘exception’ to conducting roadblocks limiting travel

Asking the police to enforce roadblocks exposes officers to further risk and possible COVID-19 infections, says federation president Brian Sauve

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

As part of the province’s strategy to combat the opioid overdose crisis, take-home naloxone kits have been distributed throughout the province. (Courtesy of Gaëlle Nicolussi)
Vancouver Island could be at its worst point of overdose crises yet: medical health officer

Island Health issued overdose advisories for Victoria, various communities in the last two weeks

The conservation service confirmed they do not relocate cougars from settled areas but that euthanasia is not necessarily the fate for an animal in the Fanny Bay area. The hope is that the animal will move on to wild areas. (File photo)
Woman hopes cat-stalking Fanny Bay cougar can avoid euthanization

Conservation officers do not relocate the animals from Vancouver Island

Tofino residents expressed frustration over a recent post by Long Beach Lodge owner Tim Hackett that falsely claimed all residents have been vaccinated. (Westerly file photo)
Resort owner apologizes for suggesting Tofino is safe to travel to

Long Beach Lodge owner Tim Hackett apologizes to community and visitors

BC Hydro released a survey Thursday, April 22. It found that many British Columbians are unintentionally contributing to climate change with their yard maintenance choices. (Pixabay)
Spend a lot of time doing yard work? It might be contributing to climate change

Recent BC Hydro survey finds 60% of homeowners still use gas-powered lawnmowers and yard equipment

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Most Read