Refugee advocates speaking on behalf of several Christian and civil society groups say Canada should expand its refugee resettlement efforts following the Trump administration’s January 27 executive order attempting to suspend refugee acceptance to the United States for 120 days.
Specifically, there have been calls for the government to increase the number of refugees it accepts in 2017 and strike down the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between Canada and the U.S., which allows Canadian border guards to refuse entrance to asylum seekers crossing into the country overland from the U.S.
Gloria Nafziger, an Anglican who serves as refugee co-ordinator for Amnesty International Canada, said that while the STCA has always been problematic, recent events in the U.S. have made lifting it a priority.
“It is Amnesty’s view that…the United States no longer conforms to the [UN] Refugee Convention [of 1951], and as such is not a partner-or cannot be considered a partner for the purposes of the agreement,” she says. She noted that the agreement was made under the assumption that both countries would adhere to and abide by the convention.
Trump’s executive order is currently on hold after several federal courts issued temporary restraining orders blocking its enforcement. But U.S. officials are considering revising the order to circumvent the legal challenges to it, according to a Bloomberg News report.
The order prohibits Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. “indefinitely” and suspends the country’s refugee system for 120 days. It also bars entry to the U.S. for 90 days of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Nafziger says there is a “wonderful role” for churches to express concerns about the safety of refugees and immigrants in the U.S., and to participate in legal action challenging the STCA.
“I think voices from a faith community are very, very important, in terms of speaking out against the anti-Muslim rhetoric and the hate rhetoric that is directed toward immigrants and refugees,” she says, adding that churches might choose to support legal claims on behalf of refugee claimants.
The STCA, which took effect in 2004, requires asylum seekers to apply for refugee status “in the first safe country they arrive in,” unless they meet certain exemptions, including being an unaccompanied minor and having family members in Canada.
The agreement prevents asylum seekers from claiming refugee status at the border, but they are still able to do so if they can make a claim inland, after having already crossed into the country.
While the executive order suspending refugee acceptance is being contested in U.S. courts, recent months have seen a sharp increase in the number of refugees crossing the border illegally to apply for refugee status in Canada.
According to a Canadian Border Services Agency spokesperson quoted by the CBC, 410 asylum seekers crossed the border at Emerson, Manitoba between April and December 2016. Dozens more have arrived in 2017, according to reports by The Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and CBC.
The route between North Dakota and Manitoba exposes asylum seekers to harsh winds and sub-zero conditions, sometimes for hours. According to another CBC story, Ghanaian refugees Sidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal lost their fingers to frostbite while attempting to make the crossing in December.
On January 31, over 200 law professors from across Canada signed an open letter to the government calling for the immediate suspension of the STCA.
However, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the executive order by tweeting that Canada would welcome “those fleeing persecution, terror & war,” there has been no increase in the target numbers for refugee resettlement. Nor has the government indicated it will consider withdrawing from the STCA.
“If [Trudeau] thinks that refugees are welcome here, the act that would actually show that we are serious about that is removing or dissolving [the STCA],” says Jenn McIntyre, director of Toronto-based refugee settlement agency Romero House.
McIntyre notes that the Canadian government took some measures to help refugees following the passage of the executive order, such as offering temporary residence permits to refugees stranded in Canada. However, she adds that such actions do little to help asylum seekers hoping to take refuge in the country on a more permanent basis.
The Rev. Jeffrey Metcalfe, an Anglican priest pursuing doctorate-level research into the church’s response to refugees at the University of Toronto, calls the STCA a “morally abhorrent policy.”
The STCA allows Canada to turn away refugee claimants at the border, even if they would normally meet Canada’s standards for refugee status, he says.
While recent decisions by the U.S. government have exposed the STCA to heightened criticism, the agreement has long been a target of church and civil society groups advocating on behalf of refugees.
In 2006, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council of Refugees, and the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) were involved in a legal challenge to the agreement on the basis that it was unlawful insofar as it breached the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as international human rights laws.
The challenge was upheld by the Federal Court, but overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal in 2008. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
However, when the Journal contacted Peter Noteboom, CCC deputy general secretary and association secretary for justice and peace, said this time around there wasn’t “full consensus” among members for the council to ask that the agreement to be struck down completely.
Noteboom said this had less to do with disagreement about the agreement itself than with “tactics” around how the CCC should engage the issue.
He noted that a letter to the government is being drafted, which calls for a review and assessment of the STCA, the raising of the cap on refugee resettlement numbers for 2017, and for the shortage of housing available to refugee claimants to be addressed.
These were also issues raised by two Anglican dioceses in recent statements.
The diocese of British Columbia issued a statement on February 7 calling on the Federal government to increase its 2017 targets for refugee resettlement by 7,000 given the “unprecedented need” for Canada to play a greater role in the wake of Trump’s executive order.
The diocese of Toronto released a short video in January calling on Anglicans to open their homes to refugee claimants arriving in Toronto.