Amidst recent changes in the United States’ asylum system and the increasing numbers of migrants entering Canada, many have identified the Safe Third Country Agreement as an unacceptable part of our legal system. Downtown Legal Services (DLS) represents two individuals challenging the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) at the Federal Court – as already reported by the CBC, Globe and Mail, and CTVNews. Three organizations have joined our clients in this challenge: the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), Amnesty International (AI), and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC).
The STCA is a bilateral agreement between Canada and the United States. Under the STCA, individuals who arrive or travel through the United States are ineligible to make a refugee claim at a port-of-entry in Canada. Likewise, individuals who arrive or travel through Canada are ineligible to make a claim in the United States. The STCA is premised on the belief the United States is a safe country for asylum seekers. We argue that the United States is no longer a safe country for asylum seekers.
The Law Underlying the Safe Third Country Agreement
The United States is currently designated as a “safe country” under section 102 of the Immigration Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), and is currently the only country with this designation. Under section 102 of the IRPA, the governor in council must ensure the continuing review of factors set out within section 102(2) of the Act. Under section 102(2), the governor in council should consider:
- whether the country is a party to the Refugee Convention and to the Convention Against Torture;
- its policies and practices with respect to claims under the Refugee Convention and with respect to obligations under the Convention Against Torture;
- its human rights record; and
- whether it is party to an agreement with the Government of Canada for the purpose of sharing responsibility with respect to claims for refugee protection.
2007 Challenge to the Safe Third Country Agreement
To date, the outcome of any review by the governor in council has never been published. However, a previous challenge to the STCA by CCR, CCC, and AI was upheld by the Federal Court in 2007. There, Justice Phelan of the Federal Court found it was unreasonable to conclude that the United States was a “safe country”. The decision found that since the United States was returning asylum seekers to countries where they still faced a real danger, it was not complying with its obligations under the Refugee Convention and the Convention Against Torture and infringed upon rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This decision was overturned at the Federal Court of Appeal in 2008. However, the appellate court did not review if the United States was a safe country or consider the Charter arguments in their full scope. Rather, the Federal Court of Appeal found that since CCR, CCC, and AI, being organizations, did not have the appropriate standing to present claims on behalf of individuals trying to gain entry at the Canada-United States border. Notably, the Federal Court of Appeal did not reverse Justice Phelan’s finding that it was unreasonable to conclude the United States was a safe country.
When individuals attempt to enter Canada through the United States, they interact directly with the Safe Third Country Agreement. The current challenge to the STCA includes arguments that the agreement infringes upon the section 15 and section 7 Charter rights of individuals crossing at the border.
Section 15 of the Charter concerns individuals’ rights to equal treatment and benefit of the law, free from discrimination. The section 15 arguments on the applicants’ right to equality focuses on the unique challenges faced by asylum claimants who are women. The current asylum system in the United States does not accommodate women appropriately for numerous reasons. As an example, a June 2018 decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions states that individuals cannot use “domestic violence” as a ground to claim asylum. By precluding women from using “domestic violence” as a ground to claim asylum, they can be returned to countries where they would have no state protection from these acts. In this way, returning asylum seekers who are women to the United States denies them the full protection and benefit of the law.
Section 7 of the Charter concerns individuals rights to life, liberty, and security of their person. The section 7 arguments focus on the increased risk of returning asylum seekers to nations in which they face danger. Since 2007, the United States’ asylum system has not become any safer for asylum seekers. Many of the past concerns, including the high rates of return asylum seekers to countries where they face danger, still remain. By returning asylum seekers to the United States, where they will be returned to countries where they face a real risk to their life and security, there is a violation of the asylum seekers’ rights under section 7 of the Charter.