The Safe Third Country Agreement allows Canada to turn back most asylum seekers who come from the US.
Canada’s Supreme Court has upheld an agreement that allows authorities to turn back asylum seekers crossing into the country from the United States.
The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) allows asylum seekers to be turned back on the grounds they should have applied for asylum in the first “safe” country in which they arrived, in this case the US.
Refugee advocates had argued in their court challenge that the agreement violates asylum seekers’ rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom – notably their rights to life, liberty and security of the person as well as their right to equal treatment.
They said those returned to the US face poor detention conditions and the prospect of refoulement, or being forcibly removed to their country of origin.
In the unanimous ruling released on Friday, Justice Nicholas Kasirer agreed that return to the US risked violating some rights. He cited the “risk of detention upon being returned there and some aspects of detention conditions” and well as the risk of forcible return.
However, he cited legislative “safety valves”, including “discretionary exemption on the basis of humanitarian and compassionate or public policy grounds”, which are, at least in theory, designed to protect those rights.
Still, he noted “it may well be that, in practice, administrative decision makers do not always construe or deploy the legislative safety valves appropriately”, according to a brief of the ruling released by the court.
The Supreme Court holds the regulations designating the United States as a safe third country do not infringe refugee claimants’ rights to liberty and security of the person. Read our plain-language summary here: https://t.co/nv0jyJsy3u pic.twitter.com/hWtO41SQjC
— Supreme Court of Canada (@SCC_eng) June 16, 2023
Naqib Sarwary, an officer from Amnesty International Canada, called the ruling “truly heartbreaking”.
He said the ruling upholds “the inhuman deal to keep STCA and push asylum seekers back to the US and having them take unsafe routes as they seek safety to Canada”.
The agreement between the US and Canada first went into effect in 2004 but applied only to formal crossings.
This year, US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an amended agreement that would apply to the entire border.
The move came as Trudeau faced political pressure to address an increase in irregular crossings, the vast majority in the eastern province of Quebec.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had intercepted more than 39,500 asylum seekers who irregularly crossed the border into Canada in 2022.
Advocates have argued the new agreement will force asylum seekers to pursue more dangerous routes to gain entry to Canada.
“This is very dangerous,” Frantz Andre, spokesperson and coordinator of Comite d’action des personnes sans statut, a Montreal-based asylum seeker support group, told Al Jazeera in March.
“I have no doubt. People have come too far to go back. They know that the US is not a safe country,” Andre said.
Canada’s federal government has defended the agreement, maintaining that the treatment of asylum seekers in the US does not breach their rights and there are adequate safeguards in place.