An agreement between Canada and the United States to treat each other as “safe countries” for refugees infringes upon the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a Federal Court judge has ruled, giving Ottawa six months to respond.
In a decision released Wednesday, Justice Ann Marie McDonald said the Safe Third Country Agreement, which allows both countries to turn around asylum seekers crossing the border in both directions, violates the Charter rights “to life, liberty and security of the person.”
The case was brought forward by the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council of Churches and a number of individual litigants following the immigration crackdown by the Trump administration.
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They argued that by returning ineligible refugee claimants to the U.S., Canada exposes them to risks — including detention and eventual deportation to countries where they could face harm.
“The applicants have provided significant evidence of the risks and challenges faced by STCA ineligible claimants when they are returned to the U.S.,” McDonald wrote.
“The evidence establishes that the conduct of Canadian officials in applying the provisions of the STCA will provoke certain, and known, reactions by U.S. officials. In my view, the risk of detention for the sake of ‘administrative’ compliance with the provisions of the STCA cannot be justified.”
The three groups which brought the case welcomed the decision and urged Ottawa to stop returning refugee claimants to the U.S. in the meantime.
“While the Federal Court has provided the government with six months leeway, it is imperative that Canada immediately end the return of claimants to the U.S.,” said Alex Neve, secretary general for Amnesty International Canada, in a joint statement.
“The Safe Third Country Agreement has been the source of grave human rights violations for many years, unequivocally confirmed in this ruling. That cannot be allowed to continue one more day, and is of even greater concern now given the prevalence of COVID-19 in immigration detention in the United States.”
The Conservative Party, which forms the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, is calling on the minority Liberal government to appeal the decision.
The left-of-centre New Democratic Party, on the other hand, is urging the Liberals to abide by the ruling.
A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the department is reviewing the Federal Court’s decision.
“Although the Federal Court has made its ruling, that decision does not come in effect until January 22, 2021. The Safe Third Country Agreement remains in effect,” said press secretary Mary-Liz Power.
With files from Catharine Tunney of CBC News