Canada’s Immigration Minister stood behind the country’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States on Tuesday despite calls from opposition MPs and experts to abandon it.
Ahmed Hussen said the agreement has been “very good” for the country even while he added “I think all Canadians are troubled by the images coming out of the United States. The lives of children are very precious, and their security and well-being has to be foremost in our minds.”
On Monday, the prime minister had refused to get involved in the debate over recent American actions that have seen hundreds of young children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Critics from all sides want the federal government to leave the agreement that was created to deal with the handling of refugees. Under the agreement, claims for refugee status, are to be handled by the country where the person first arrived.
“The U.S. is no longer a safe country for asylum speakers,” Jenny Kwan, the NDP immigration critic, shouted during Tuesday’s heated question period. “Canada must not be complacent.”
The drumbeat for withdrawal has intensified since the U.S. imposed a zero tolerance policy on asylum seekers by arresting all adults illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. If the asylum seekers have brought their children with them, the children and parents are separated. The Trump administration has so far taken 2,200 children from parents and placed them in detention.
“(The Trump administration’s actions are) nothing short of torture,” said Stephanie Silverman, an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto.
The drama might be happening down south, but immigration lawyer Evelyn Ackah said Canada has a role to play in assuring the safety of all migrants seeking protection by putting an end to the agreement.
“I’m not sure it should be a permanent change given the climate … and the outroar happening in the States,” she said. “Canada is … the place where people come in times of need.”
Under the 2002 agreement, asylum seekers coming to Canada by land are turned back to the United States without having their refugee claims filed in Canada. Thousands of asylum seekers avoid the terms of the agreement every year by choosing to cross the border at irregular sites like Roxham Road in Quebec and Emerson, Manitoba.
“If Trump knew about this policy, he would probably step away too,” Silverman said. “It’s trapping asylum seekers in the United States.”
The American actions go against crucial tenets of international law by imposing a penalty on asylum seekers for irregular arrival and circumvents the international agreement on the rights to the child that state young migrants should only be detained as a last resort, Canadian UNHCR representative Jean-Nicholas Beuze said in an interview. The United Nations, he said, has condemned the policy and is calling on the United States to protect migrant rights.
Silverman said if Canada does not suspend the agreement, at least in the short term, the international community could believe the two governments are working together to ignore the human rights violations happening across the border.
Canada, she said, is obliged to watch the safety and security of migrants under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Hussen reassured the House that the Liberal government will continue to monitor the situation south of the border.