(Host) The United States and Canada are scheduled to sign an accord this week that would increase cooperation between the two countries in counter-terrorism efforts. But critics say one section of the pact has nothing to do with terrorism. They say it’s designed to cut down on the number of immigrants allowed asylum in the two countries. They argue the “Safe Third Country Agreement” will hurt people who have fled persecution in their own country and could lead to more refugees being smuggled across the U.S.-Canadian border.
VPR’s Steve Zind reports:
(Zind) Each year, 15,000 refugees arrive in the United States, then travel to Canada, where they apply for asylum. They land in the U.S. because it’s easier to reach by ship or plane. They go to Canada to live because that country’s laws are friendlier to asylum seekers.
The Safe Third Country Agreement would prevent them from making the journey from the U.S. to Canada to apply for asylum. It requires them to apply in whichever country they arrive first. One third of Canada’s asylum seekers cross the border into Canada from the United States, so the agreement could dramatically reduce the number of refugees flowing into Canada.
Critics say the U.S. is going along with the agreement only to gain Canadian co-operation in other areas. Patrick Giantonio is with Vermont Refugee Assistance. Giantonio says the agreement is a bad deal for the U.S. and for asylum seekers:
(Giantonio) “The U.S. is signing an agreement that is going to open the door to increasing smuggling trade on our northern border. It’s going to force thousands of the 15,000 that would normally go to Canada to either go underground in the U.S. or be forced into the U.S. asylum system which is already overloaded and has a backlog of 250,000 cases right now.”
(Zind) Giantonio says limiting where a person can seek asylum means refugees will have fewer options, and they’re more likely to be sent back to countries where their lives are in danger. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy agrees. Leahy says the Safe Third Country accord won’t help combat terrorism. He says the U.S. has an obligation to help asylum seekers:
(Leahy) “Of course, there will be some who might have some evil intent, but we’re usually able to find them. But there are thousands of other people who say they come here to escape persecution. It might be religious persecution, or political persecution or racial or ethnic. They come here to escape that.”
(Zind) Mark Krikorian disagrees. Krikorian heads the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. The center favors tighter immigration controls.
(Krikorian) “The large majority of asylum applicants are simply lying about persecution. They’re simply seeking a way of staying in an advanced industrial country and their lawyers advice them to concoct an asylum claim.”
(Zind) Krikorian says the Safe Third Country Agreement doesn’t mean more asylum seekers will end up in the U.S. He expects they’ll find other ways to get to Canada. Krikorian says the agreement is a necessary first step toward making similar arrangements with Mexico and European countries. Krikorian says it’s a matter of national sovereignty that the U.S. limit the number of people allowed asylum.
(Krikorian) “The 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees says than an illegal alien must be allowed to apply for asylum. That is a limitation on our control over our own borders. That limitation needs to be as narrow as possible.”,/i>
(Zind) Those limitations and the prospect of future Safe Third Country Agreements worry Patrick Gioantonio.
(Giantonio) “As refugee advocates, one of our real concerns about the agreement is that both the U.S. and Canada will be moving backwards towards upholding their international legal obligations, which is to not return threatened individuals into the hands of their persecutors, which could very well happen with this agreement.”
(Zind) The Safe Third Country Agreement is expected to be signed by the U.S. and Canada on Thursday. Implementation of the agreement will take several months.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.