Changes to refugee policy unnecessary: Jeffery

By Tony Poland, Associate Editor

The federal government needs to rethink its plan to change the eligibility provisions for refugee claimants, Toronto immigration lawyer Matthew Jeffery tells

"The proposed changes would work hand-in-hand with the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) to effectively prevent the vast majority of refugees coming from the United States from being able to make a refugee claim in Canada," says Jeffery, who operates the immigration-focused Matthew Jeffery Barrister & Solicitor office in Toronto.

The STCA, which came into effect in December 2002, is an agreement between Canada and the United States that works to prevent refugees present in one country from crossing the land border into the other country in order to make a refugee claim, he explains.

"Under the agreement, claimants are required to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in. Those who are in the U.S. and try to enter Canada to make a claim will be turned back unless they qualify for an exception, such as having family here," Jeffery says.

"As the STCA only applies to official border crossings between Canada and the U.S., many refugees have recently by-passed regular border controls, arriving irregularly at non-official crossings. The Canadian government has faced intense criticism from the opposition over this loophole."

He says under the current rules, "whether a refugee coming into Canada from the U.S. has made a refugee claim there or in another country is irrelevant to the assessment of whether they can make a refugee claim in Canada."

"Now with an election looming, the government has quietly introduced changes in the recent Budget Implementation Act, Bill C-97, that would affect the eligibility requirements for those who seeking a refugee claim in Canada," Jeffery says. "These changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act would mean that once a refugee has made a claim in certain countries, including the U.S., they are precluded from applying for refugee status in Canada.

"As many or even most of the refugees entering Canada from the U.S. have already made asylum claims there, this would have the effect of disqualifying most for refugee protection consideration in Canada, whether they enter Canada regularly or irregularly. As well, those who have already entered Canada and made their claims can have them terminated as now being ineligible."

Jeffery calls the expected revisions “dog-whistle politics.”

“The Trudeau government initially took a moral stance — and I think it was the right one — of allowing people to come in from the United States to make a claim, and they seem to be completely backtracking on that with these new provisions,” he says. “There's already been some commentary that this appears to be a crass political ploy leading up to the coming election.”

Advocates have come out against the STCA, saying the U.S. is not a safe country for all refugees, and Jeffery agrees.

He says the Canadian government defines a safe country as “those that have a similar system to our own where people can access effective protection.”

“To say that the American system is as good as the Canadian is basically a farce,” Jeffery says. “This is something that refugee advocates have been trying to explain to the government for some time. The United States is not really a safe country for refugees.”

He says under President Donald Trump, the U.S. "can no longer be said to be friendly to refugees.”

“The Trump regime has taken steps to restrict the flow of all refugees and to prevent people from obtaining refugee status,” Jeffery says.

“There's certain aspects of their refugee protection system that are contrary to Canadian law. For example, in the U.S., domestic violence and gang violence are not grounds to be granted asylum, whereas in Canada they are.”

Jeffrey says the intent of the change is to prevent so-called “asylum shopping” – which is to say that people should file an application in the first place they arrive and not go looking around to find the best place to make a claim. Jeffery argues this policy runs counter to Canada’s refugee protection system.

“Having made a refugee claim in the United States or other countries should not be a ground of ineligibility to seek protection in Canada, especially given that it's abundantly clear that the American system is not as good as the Canadian refugee protection system,” Jeffery says.

He says if you look at it “from the perspective of a refugee who genuinely fears returning to their country because they're going to face persecution or serious harm,” if they lose a refugee claim in one country it makes sense that they would apply to another.

“Wouldn't you look for another place to make a claim? You're looking for safety, you're looking for protection because you can't go home,” Jeffery says.

He explains that not everyone making a refugee claim in Canada is accepted, so the argument that people are “asylum shopping” doesn’t hold up.

“Every case will be adjudicated, and the ones who do not genuinely have a danger in their home country will lose their cases and have to leave Canada, so there's not really any problem as far as I'm concerned when it comes to asylum shopping,” Jeffrey says.

“The proper thing to do is to take a moral stand and say these people are afraid to live in the United States,” he says. ”They don't think they're going to be safe and they have a right under international law to come into Canada and make a refugee claim.

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