In a federal court ruling that came down last week, the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) was found to be unconstitutional. For those of us who've been organizing against this agreement for years, this decision could not come soon enough. And, still, we know that much work remains.
Even as the horrors of modern-day concentration camps at the US-Mexico border warehousing Central American asylum-seekers come to light, the Trudeau government battened down the hatches on anti-refugee policies. Despite public pressure, they didn’t budge on the STCA, which meant that most asylum-seekers fleeing persecution or violence in their home countries who’d transited through the US and arrived on Canada’s doorstep at official ports of entry along the border were turned away. The rationale: that their refugee claim had to be made in the US, the first supposedly “safe country” they stepped foot in. Not only did the government try to expand the STCA, but they also snuck anti-refugee measures in their 392-page omnibus budget bill, C-97.
These moves prompted thirteen local groups, including No One is Illegal - Halifax/K'jipuktuk and the Halifax Refugee Clinic to pen an open letter to Liberal MP Andy Fillmore last May, urging him to stand up for refugee rights by speaking out against these proposed changes. But he refused.
Nevertheless, we persisted. We wrote letters, organized vigils and protests, and when election season came around, we showed up to ask tough questions at all-candidates debates. Again and again, Fillmore defended these anti-refugee measures. Shining a light on these issues even led me to be unjustly excluded from a Trudeau campaign event last year—for which I have yet to receive an apology or explanation from Fillmore or Trudeau. As we organized across the country, legal challenges to the STCA were slowly making their way through the system, courageously led by asylum-seekers from Ethiopia, El Salvador and Syria.
Importantly, the court found that under the STCA, Canadian officials sent asylum-seekers back to the US, knowing full well that they would be imprisoned there, violating "the right to life, liberty and security of the person” guaranteed under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In turn, their risks of being sent back to the countries they sought to escape were heightened. For Nedira Mustefa, an asylum-seeker from Ethiopia and one of the litigants in the case, being sent back to the US led to her detention, where she was thrown into solitary confinement, which she described as “a terrifying, isolating and psychologically traumatic experience.”
This ruling highlights what many of us have been saying for years: that the US is not a safe country for refugees. However, this is not only Trump's doing. Obama deported over 3 million people from the US during his time in office, more than any other president in US history.
The STCA—ushered in by the Liberal government in 2004 —left asylum-seekers with only one option to make a refugee claim at the Canada-US border, since official points of entry were off the table: crossing the border irregularly, at sites such as Roxham Road in Quebec. Some asylum-seekers lost lives and limbs being forced to cross irregularly. Although asylum-seekers have the lawful right to cross irregularly in order to seek protection, they were made into targets of racist and xenophobic scapegoating in the national imagination.
And COVID-19 once again brings the inequalities faced by asylum-seekers into sharp focus. While Trudeau has shut out asylum-seekers arriving at irregular crossings along the Canada-US border since March under the cover of COVID-19, the pandemic has laid bare the crucial role asylum-seekers play in our communities.
At Northwood, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak in the province, we've seen asylum-seekers risk their lives to fill in gaps in long-term care—despite having limited healthcare coverage if they got sick and needed care. Sadly, asylum-seekers are suddenly finding their shifts cancelled post-crisis and being treated as expendable. Across the country, asylum-seekers and other migrants are calling for equality—and that means permanent residence status for all.
And as many hail the federal court's STCA ruling as a victory for refugee rights, let's not forget that we've been here before. Back in 2007, the federal court first ruled the agreement to be unconstitutional. Unfortunately, the decision was overturned on technical grounds following an appeal by the Canadian government.
The federal court has given the Trudeau government six months before declaring the STCA invalid. In that time, we need to continue to hold their feet to the fire, and to call on Fillmore and Trudeau to immediately end the STCA, as well as all anti-refugee and anti-migrant policies. Lives depend on it.
Refugees welcome! Status for all!
Stacey Gomez is a migrant justice organizer with No one is illegal - Halifax/K’jipuktuk