OTTAWA — Immigration advocates say Canada should walk away from its refugee protection agreement with the United States in the wake of a decision there to suspend all refugee admissions and restrict immigration from seven specific countries.
It’s one of several ideas being suggested after nearly 72 hours of uncertainty resulting from U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order Friday, an order that groups say requires a more robust response from the Canadian government than social media messages in support of this country’s refugee admissions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won plaudits around the world on the weekend when, amid widespread uncertainty about the U.S. plan, he posted a message on Twitter saying Canada would welcome all those fleeing persecution, regardless of faith.
Many interpreted the message to mean Canada was taking new action on refugee resettlement, but when pressed by the NDP Monday on what concrete steps are being taken, Trudeau did not directly answer.
“Once again I am tremendously proud of Canadians, individuals, communities, municipalities, provinces who are all open to doing more, who have promised to be there, to be more open and provide even more support,” he said.
“So I asked the minister of immigration to look at the different ways that we can help out and obviously I’m open to discussing this.”
Questions to the minister’s office and department were not immediately returned. The House of Commons, however, is scheduled to hold an emergency debate Tuesday night on the question of what can be done.
Groups are seizing on the safe third country agreement as a way to both help those affected by Trump’s executive order and send a strong political message.
The deal was signed between Canada and the U.S. in 2002 and came into effect in 2004, part of a suite of new deals signed by the two countries in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and increased joint efforts on border security.
In a nutshell, it means people can’t show up at the Canada-U.S. land border and ask for asylum here if they could have requested it in the U.S. first.
The agreement had an immediate impact on refugee claims at the border, decreasing them by approximately 55 per cent in the first year.
But circumstances have changed, groups argue.
“In our view it has become rapidly and abundantly clear that amidst rapidly evolving and unpredictable circumstances … the United States cannot be considered by Canada to be “safe” for the purposes of refugee protection,” Amnesty International wrote in an open letter to the Liberal government.
Whether the Liberal government agrees with that assessment is unknown; Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale deflected questions to his Immigration counterpart, who was not immediately available to reporters Monday.
Suspending the deal would mean those with refugee claims in the U.S. would now be free to come to Canada and lodge a request here; how many have already done so in the wake of the executive order was not immediately clear.
“Another thing Canada could do immediately is work with other countries and the UN to devise a plan for taking in the refugees already cleared for admission from the U.S. but whose fate is now uncertain,” said Mitch Goldberg, the president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.
“They’ve gone through a robust security process. It’s a no brainer: take them in.”
This week alone, over 800 refugees were set to settle in the U.S., and about 20,000 may have been resettled there during the 120 days covered by the suspension the U.S. enacted on Friday, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said.
“Refugees are anxious, confused and heartbroken at this suspension in what is already a lengthy process,” commissioner Filippo Grandi said in a statement.
The opposition Conservatives, noting that the federal government has existing but still unmet commitments to refugees, grilled Trudeau on the status of a promise to resettle Yazidis, a minority group suffering at the hands of Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. No update was forthcoming.
Immigration critic Michelle Rempel said the government has a lot of internal policy they need to examine in light of Trump’s order.
“It’s early days and I look forward to the government’s response in terms of how they are dealing with their conversation with their American counterparts,” Rempel said.