Montreal, Canada –Canadian and US officials have remained tight-lipped about possible plans to alter a bilateral agreement that would make it harder for asylum seekers to enter Canada from the United States.
Earlier this week, Reuters news agency reported that Ottawa is seeking to expand an agreement with the US to allow it to turn back thousands of asylum seekers at all points along the countries’ shared border.
Thousands of migrants have entered Canada irregularly since early last year, cutting across snowy fields or through ditches to apply for asylum.
The possibility that Ottawa will make it tougher on asylum seekers has raised concerns among rights groups and legal experts in Canada, who have long called on the government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).
“It’s not about deepening the reach of the agreement; we think it should be entirely lifted,” Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, told Al Jazeera.
Under the STCA, people can only make a refugee claim in the first country they land in. In other words, a person who is already in the US can’t go to an official border crossing to make an application for refugee status in Canada.
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A loophole in the deal, however, allows anyone who is already on Canadian soil to file for refugee status. That has pushed thousands of people to enter Canada at unofficial points of entry along the border.
In 2017, Canada’s federal police intercepted more than 20,500 asylum seekers walking across the border without visas, 91.5 percent of whom entered in the province of Quebec.
Neve said the deal should be lifted since the US isn’t “a safe partner for refugee protection”, especially under the Donald Trump administration, which he said has dramatically worsened the conditions for refugees and migrants there.
Many of the new arrivals to Canada cited fears of deportation, detention or other human rights abuses in the US as their reason for heading north.
“In many respects, there’s an assault on the rights of refugees and migrants underway in the United States,” Neve said.
“In that context, for the Canadian government to be looking at ways which make it harder and harder for fearful refugees in the United States to look instead to Canada as a place of protection is very worrying.”
Canada has denied it is considering turning the entire border into a point of entry.
A spokesperson for Canada’s minister of public safety said that “would create a 9,000-kilometre issue that would be more difficult to deal with and potentially more dangerous”.
“It would incentivise people to cross at more remote locations and to evade detection by Canadian law enforcement so they can get to an inland immigration office and make a claim there,” Scott Bardsley told Al Jazeera in an email.
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It could also violate Canada’s obligations under international law and the STCA itself, Bardsley said.
Meanwhile, an official with the US Department of Homeland Security told Al Jazeera it was “currently reviewing the proposal made by Canada” to amend the Safe Third Country Agreement.
DHS has not made a decision on the matter, said the official, who did not respond to questions about what the Canadian proposal entails exactly.
For his part, however, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale told reporters this week “no formal proposal” has been presented to the US.
“There is a conversation about how we make our border – both ways – strong, effective, and secure from the perspective of both countries and that conversation will be ongoing,” Goodale said.
That was echoed by a spokesperson for Canada’s ministry of immigration.
“Given what Canada perceives as challenges with the STCA in a modern environment, and the flows we are seeing at the border, we have raised the matter with the US, and they are aware of our concerns,” Beatrice Fenelon told Al Jazeera.
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Should Canada and the US reopen the Safe Third Country Agreement, Sean Rehaag, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto, said he would expect it to be “more restrictive, not broader”.
Before the STCA came into force in 2004, about 10,000 asylum seekers would come to Canada from the US every year, Rehaag told Al Jazeera, and make their refugee claims at the border.
About 200 asylum seekers would go in the other direction annually.
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Canada had been pushing to get some type of deal in place for years, Rehaag explained, to stem this flow of migrants, and the US only signed on to the STCA once Canada agreed to bolster information sharing with the US after the 9/11 attacks.
Rehaag, who specialises in immigration and refugee law, said he has serious doubts that the US would agree to expand the STCA, given the US president’s harsh stance on immigration.
“I just don’t think it’s realistic to think the US has any incentive to further decrease the number of asylum seekers coming to Canada,” he said.
Instead, Rehaag said, Canada should lift the agreement altogether and let people make asylum claims in an orderly and safe way at official border crossings – like they did prior to 2004.
“Every country that has tried to close off paths for asylum seekers into the country, the result is not fewer asylums seekers coming in; the result is the asylum seekers come in through more dangerous routes,” he said.
“Wouldn’t we prefer to give them a safe, regular way into the country, instead of pushing them into either irregular crossings, or worse dangerous, surreptitious crossings?”
Whatever Canada decides to do, there are renewed fears the border crossings could stoke anti-immigrant sentiment in the country.
Officials say they expect as many as 400 asylum seekers to cross the border into Quebec every day this summer. Between January 1 and March 31 of this year, 4,828 asylum seekers crossed irregularly into the province, out of 5,052 nationwide.
In Quebec, where a provincial election is set for October 1, some groups are already using the asylum seeker issue to try to score political points.
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The leader of the separatist Parti Quebecois, Jean-Francois Lisee, said last month that a fence should be built at an irregular crossing point that has become popular among asylum seekers, Roxham Road.
Quebec, which has borne the majority of the recent influx of asylum seekers, has called on the federal government to provide it with more financial support to help process the new arrivals as they wait for their refugee claims to be heard.
Justin Trudeau’s government has also been under pressure to better regulate the border crossings from the opposition Conservative Party, which has argued in favour of making the entire Canada-US border a point of entry to deter the new arrivals.
“The worry that I have… is the way that this has created xenophobia and divisiveness in the [United] States and in many countries in Europe,” said Rehaag.
He said the asylum seeker issue is “completely manageable” in Canada, but will require political will on the part of the Liberal government to both “stop forcing people to come irregularly and properly fund the system”.
Properly allocating resources to the entire process – from funding shelters and groups that help asylum seekers find jobs, to appropriately staffing the border and the bodies involved in Canada’s refugee status determination process – is critical, Rehaag said.
“It’s not the end of the world. The sky’s not falling. The numbers are manageable.”
Neve agreed, saying the number of asylum seekers coming to Canada “is a drop in the bucket” compared to the hundreds of thousands and even millions of refugees who have sought protection in Turkey, Uganda, Lebanon, Jordan or Bangladesh.
“In that global context, we should be doing everything we can to ensure that we’re taking our share of the responsibility,” Neve said.
“If that means that we will need some increased resources at this time because our southern neighbour is in the midst of a crackdown on the rights of refugees, then so be it.”