Canada complicit in humanitarian crisis on U.S. border
Safe Third Country Agreement insulates Canadians while violating human rights

Public concern about the abuse of Haitian migrants surfaced last week after images of United States border patrol agents were released. The images displayed white men on horseback chasing and corralling the migrants as though they were cattle. The photographs were horrifically similar to slavery era paintings and served as a suitable visualization of the racism and white supremacy that persists on the continent.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recognized the inhumanity of the spectacle at a news conference. “We know that those images painfully conjured up the worst elements of our nation’s ongoing battle against systemic racism,” he said.

Migrant Haitians appeared on the U.S.-Mexico border fleeing decades of economic turmoil, ecological disasters and the recent assassination of president Jovenel Moïse. So far, approximately 30,000 migrants have appeared at the border, but only a fraction — roughly 12,000 — will be eligible to seek asylum. Reports from last year’s asylum claims indicate only 22 per cent of Haitian cases for asylum were approved, indicating a majority of desperate migrant travellers may be sent home. Thousands have reportedly already been flown back to Haiti under President Joe Biden’s orders after he used Donald Trump-era legislation as legal justification.

While pundits continue to condemn the U.S.’s poor management of the humanitarian crisis, little attention is being paid to Canada’s role in migration policy. Historically, Canada has had a free ride regarding migration policy criticism. Many Canadians assume the country’s geographic proximity to the U.S. serves as a buffer from the issues in the south. However, Canada has extremely strict migrant policies that influence key decisions as to how many will be eligible for asylum.

In 1988, the Immigration Act of 1976 was amended to include a policy known as the safe third country clause. The clause effectively denied migrants the ability to seek asylum should they enter Canada through a country deemed safe. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the U.S. and Canada signed a mutual agreement known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) which established this policy on both sides of the border. Considering Canada only shares accessible borders with the U.S., this policy effectively established Canada as a nation virtually impenetrable to migrants seeking asylum from political persecution.

In essence, most asylum seekers cannot show up on the border and apply for refugee status — they must be hand-selected from a distance by government bureaucrats. This ultimately saves Canada from the politically charged spectacles the U.S. is currently dealing with and insulates it from criticism.

Canadian citizens tend to see Canada as an immigration-friendly nation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau often uses the phrase “Diversity is Canada’s strength” in campaigns to promote the welcoming of migrants fleeing various global conflicts. However, discourses on immigration in Canada rarely include criticism of the STCA.

From 2016 to 2020, at least 4,400 asylum seekers entering from the U.S. border have been rejected by Canadian officials. In 2020, a coalition of civil society groups like Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Council of Churches took on the STCA in court and won.

The Federal Court ruled the STCA is unconstitutional, claiming the policy violated section seven of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which stipulates the government must ensure the “life, liberty and security” of everyone while adhering to the charter’s fundamental principles of justice. The court also concluded the U.S. was no longer deemed a safe country for refugees seeking asylum. However, the federal government challenged the final decision in the Federal Court of Appeal in April 2021 and overturned the decision.

The federal government’s unwillingness to cooperate with the court makes clear Trudeau’s political declarations about Canada’s diversity are nothing more than an empty platitude. Although the image of border patrol agents pushing migrants from desperate shanty towns situated on the edge of the border into deserts is absent in Canadian political imagination, the invisible parapets the government has erected to enclose Canada have a role to play in the humanitarian crisis.

The federal government is complicit with the systemic abuse of refugees seeking asylum in North America. Canada is a nation of silent demagogues and invisible border walls — just because the U.S.’s migration policy is louder and more visible doesn’t mean Canada has more ethical policy tools. To improve the crisis in the south, Canadians must direct their judgement internally.