August 01, 2002
Asylum News 6
U.S. - Canada Agreement Would Require Asylum-Seekers to Apply Where They Arrive First - Causing Further Hardship Canada and the United States have recently circulated a draft agreement that would force most asylum seekers to make their claim in the country they reach first, even if they are planning only to transit through that country on their way to the other. With a few limited exceptions, under the agreement refugees would no longer be able to apply for asylum at the border between the two countries. This would cause great hardship for many refugees fleeing from persecution, as it would prevent them from joining family or friends who can house and support them while they try to put their lives back together again. Since many applicants must travel to Canada via the United States, the agreement will shift a large proportion of the Canadian caseload to the United States. The Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) reported that last year, approximately 35 percent of asylum claims made in Canada (14,807) were made by people who arrived in Canada from the United States. Agreement Would Increase Bureaucracy & Inefficiency of Asylum System Not only would the agreement significantly increase the U.S. asylum adjudication caseload, it would also require the creation of a special process and procedures to assess applicability of the agreement and its exceptions in individual cases - increasing bureaucracy. U.S. government officials have indicated that the agreement is also intended to prevent duplicate asylum claims, but they have failed to present statistics to demonstrate that there is a significant basis for this concern. In any case, a narrower agreement could prevent duplicate claims, and U.S. and Canadian law and regulations already prohibit asylum seekers who receive a "permanent offer of resettlement" in one country from applying for asylum in the other one. U.S. government officials have confirmed, also, that this kind of a broad "safe third country" agreement is not needed for security reasons. If the United States signs it, it would be as a concession to Canada. Since very few people go from Canada to the United States to seek asylum, the agreement would have minimal effect on border crossings into the United States. In fact the agreement is likely to make the border less, not more, secure. It would undermine orderly and secure procedures at the border, as refugees rush to get across before the agreement takes effect. After that, it would likely create new smuggling problems, as desperate refugees try to get across the border illegally. The U.S.-Mexico border's problems of exploitation, deaths from exposure and difficult border patrolling would spread to the U.S.-Canada border. Agreement Would Prevent Reunification of Family and Friends - Exceptions are Unduly Limited The draft agreement would needlessly prevent many refugees from joining their families, as in the case of a 29-year old Rwandan mother who arrived in the United States recently with her son, aged 8, and her daughter, aged 10, intending merely to stop in transit on her way to Canada, where her brother-in-law and sister-in-law await her. Under the agreement, she would be forbidden to join them. She would be forced to seek asylum with her two children in the United States, where she knows no one. And since the United States does not permit asylum-seekers to work legally, unlike Canada, a person like this refugee would have no means of support. This Rwandan refugees and others like her would not fit into the draft agreement's exceptions, since they are so limited. For example, although the agreement makes exceptions for asylum-seekers to join certain family members, the exceptions are limited to close family members, and to those with certain types of immigration status. Asylum-seekers who have a close family member in one of the countries would be allowed to cross the border to seek asylum in that country, but only if the relative has refugee status or legal permanent residence, or has a valid asylum claim pending. Under another exception, unaccompanied minors would be permitted to cross the border to pursue an asylum claim. Refugees have often lost their nuclear families, so that their closest ties who live in safety are other family members or friends. They also prefer to go to a place where they can speak a local language, like Quebec, in the case of the Rwandan refugee. Refugees could be bounced from one country to another, causing hardship and increasing bureaucracy This type of accord is called a "safe third country" agreement because it signals that the United States and Canada recognize each other as countries in which it is safe for persecuted nationals of other countries to seek refuge. But "safe third country" arrangements between European countries have become notorious for bouncing would-be refugees from country to country so commonly that the process has gained a wry nickname: "refugee soccer." A refugee becomes a soccer ball when he or she gets rejected by one state on "safe third country" grounds, only to be rejected again by the state in which he or she first arrived. It would be simpler and less expensive for would-be refugees to be allowed to make their claims where they choose. Consultation process; accord will likely come into effect in the late fall The U.S. State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service held a meeting on the draft agreement on Thursday August 1. At that meeting refugee advocates including Human Rights First urged that the United States abandon efforts to enter into this agreement, pointing out that the agreement was inefficient, overly broad, and unfair to refugees and their families. While U.S. officials listened to NGO concerns, they said that this "train" was moving "quite quickly." Indeed the Canadian government wants this agreement to be signed as soon as possible. It is critical, therefore, to express opposition to the draft agreement immediately.