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Canada cancels access to asylum in an agreement with the United States | Refugee News

Canada cancels access to asylum in an agreement with the United States | Refugee News

The United States and Canada have reportedly reached an agreement that will allow border authorities to turn back asylum seekers heading north across their shared border disregarding their asylum claims, sparking outcry from immigrant groups.

US and Canadian media reported the tentative agreement on Thursday, as US President Joe Biden visit the Canadian capital of Ottawa for his first official visit to the country since taking office in early 2021.

Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are expected to confirm the deal on Friday.

In a press release, Canada’s Migrant Rights Network condemned the action, calling it “unprincipled and dangerous” and saying it would “force migrants to take even more dangerous paths” when seeking refuge.

Immigration rights groups have accused the two leaders of failing to fulfill their obligations to asylum seekers, as the United States and Canada pledge more restrictive measures turn back the refugees in the midst of attacks conservative politicians.

The reported agreement expands on a policy known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). The agreement maintains that the United States and Canada are both safe countries for refugees and that refugees must seek asylum in the country in which they first arrive.

Under this policy, Canada is able to refuse asylum seekers at official ports of entry along the US border without considering their claims.

However, people could still claim asylum if they reached Canadian soil. About 39,000 people entered Canada last year through unofficial crossings such as Roxham Roada dirt road between the American state of New York and the Canadian province of Quebec, which has become a symbol of the debate over the country’s immigration policies.

Conservative politicians like Pierre Poilievre pointed Trudeau on the issue, calling the prime minister unwilling to crack down on irregular migration and urging the government to close Roxham Road.

In an op-ed in the Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper last month, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said the province’s capacity to accommodate newly arrived asylum seekers was “grossly exceeded” and called on the Trudeau government to rewrite the ETPS.

In response to inquiries from Al Jazeera, Trudeau’s office said it could not confirm media reports from Thursday and did not respond to questions about criticism from refugee rights groups.

“Completely impractical”

The agreement, first signed in 2002 and in effect since 2004, has been controversial since its inception, with advocacy groups in Canada calling for the policy to be relaxed or abolished altogether. Instead, the Trudeau administration has sought to defend — and now expand — its use.

In the meantime, the government has transferred asylum seekers from Quebec to other provinces to spread the challenges more evenly.

Experts say such actions can only offer short-term relief and that Canada should expand the ability of refugees to seek asylum in a safe and orderly manner, rather than cracking down on irregular border crossings.

“It is completely impossible to try to seal the border. If you close Roxham Road another will just pop up somewhere else,” refugee lawyer Maureen Silcoff told Al Jazeera in a recent phone call.

“It’s the STCA itself that pushes people to places like Roxham Road because they can’t claim asylum at the official entry points.”

When asylum claim options are restricted, she added, people are rarely deterred. Instead, she noted, they are looking for more remote places where they can enter the country, even if that means accepting greater risks.

“If they pursue a path of greater restrictions,” Silcoff said, “people will die.”

STCA has also faced persistent legal challenges and has twice been struck down by courts. On two occasions, the courts of appeal have supported the policywhich is now weighed by Supreme Court of Canadawhere advocacy groups hope it will be ruled unconstitutional.

These groups have also questioned the principle that the United States is a safe destination for refugees in the middle reports of poor conditions in US immigration detention centers.

“Canada has an international reputation as a country with a history of helping refugees,” said University of Ottawa immigration expert Jamie Liew.

“We have an asylum determination system that is considered the gold standard. Why not let it run? If we opened our official ports of entry, people would be able to cross smoothly and with dignity.

Increasing displacement

Experts also note that the flood of people fleeing desperate circumstances is unlikely to ebb anytime soon, especially as climate change drives displacement, especially in poorer countries.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 100 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2022.

The previous year, nearly 5 million people had left their country to seek asylum.

“What Canada is facing is a drop in the bucket compared to other countries,” Liew said. “We have an obligation to allow people to apply for asylum.”

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