Imagine crossing a snowy field, following a dirt road for hours on end. Braving strong winds and a -20 wind-chill, is what many refugees have had to endure in their attempts to cross the US-Canada border. These crossings are due to the American-Canadian Safe Third Country Agreement, where both nations are legally obligated towards rejecting any refugee who had first declared their refugee status in the other nation. As this only pertains to official ports-of-entry, a method to bypass this agreement is by making an illegal border crossing. The new influx of refugees crossing the border can be associated with the increasingly hostile environment for refugees in the US, largely constructed by Trump’s hardline immigration policies and limitation of the US refugee program.
Due to the clear conflicting nature of this agreement and the increasing number of refugee border crossings, a moral question develops as to whether Canada has a responsibility to accept fleeing refugees and perhaps repeal this Agreement. In considering such questions, two factors, being Canada’s pre-existing immigration policy and logistical concerns with an increased flow of refugees from the US, should be considered.
In relation to Canada’s refugee policy, accepting such refugees would be compatible with existing trends policy development. In comparison to the US, Canada’s immigration and refugee policy has been generally more welcoming and open. Although Canada is imagined as a progressive and proactive nation, its refugee policy has often evolved in response to historical emergency situations and public demands for accountability. The current Canadian model of refugee intake is modeled on a post-1979 framework that was developed in response to the influx of Vietnamese Boat People. Consequently, repealing of the Safe Third Country Agreement, whether formally or informally, would not be breaking with past Canadian policy making.
However, the one main question unique to this matter is that unlike traditional refugee issues which focus on the intake of refugees fleeing situations such as war and persecution, the issue regarding a repeal of the Safe Third Country Agreement focuses on the idea that the US is not a “safe third country” and accept persons who are declaring themselves “refugees” from the US. Consequently, repealing of this Safe Third Country Agreement would be an affront to the US, as it would symbolize an informal disavowal of the US reputation and ability to stand as a “safe nation” for refugees, and would thus likely damage Canadian-American relations.
These questions of policy and diplomatic relations should be contrasted with the general logistical concerns regarding an increased influx of refugees coming into Canada. If the Safe Third Country Agreement is repealed, the flow of refugees will inevitably increase. Although Trudeau’s statements concerning Canada as an “open country” are not false, the weight of logistical concerns with processing housing refugees is a potential long term problem that should not be overshadowed by optimistic and short sighted rhetoric.
Consequently, the main considerations affecting a repealing of the Safe Third Country Agreement are long-term considerations. In the short term, Canada can commit resources towards accepting the currently small number of refugees from the US, since the immediate logistical and diplomatic concerns are outweighed by the moral imperative of the situation. Trudeau’s refusal to stop accepting such refugees already points towards a growing informal revocation of the Agreement, as it provides a loophole for refugees while still maintaining Canada’s legal obligations to the Agreement. It also minimizes diplomatic fallout, since Canada still maintains a “prima facie” consensus with the US on the issue as the onus falls not on Canada accepting the refugees, but on the act of refugees illegally crossing the border.
Although the short term considerations are very clear cut, Canada’s continued acceptance of such illegal border crossing refugees may in the long term cause a strain on an unprepared refugee processing system. As per the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, any person that claims refugee status must be considered in a lengthy legal process assessing their eligibility as a refugee. In addition, they must be provided housing and other items during the duration of their stay. Although Canada has been insulated from prior influxes of refugees by its natural geographic isolation, the relatively open border with the US may potentially negate such geographic advantages.
As a consequence of these considerations, Canada should continue to abide by its “informal” solution of bypassing the Agreement to allow for a loophole for accepting such refugees as per its international legal limitations. In continuing this “informal” policy in the long-run, serious consideration should be provided towards preparing Canada for greater influxes and acceptance of refugees. As the global refugee crisis will likely get much worse before getting any better, especially as exemplified by the situation on the American-Canadian border, Canada should be prepared to assist and take a leading role.
By: Timothy Law