Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement

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Safe Third Country Agreement
TypeBilateral treaty
SignedDecember 5, 2002 (2002-12-05)
LocationWashington, D.C.
EffectiveDecember 29, 2004
CitationsCTS 2004/2

The Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement, officially the Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America for cooperation in the examination of refugee status claims from nationals of third countries,[1] is a treaty between the governments of Canada and the United States to better manage the flow of refugee claimants at the shared land border.

Under the agreement persons seeking refugee status must make their claim in the first country they arrive in, either the United States or Canada, unless they qualify for an exception. For example, refugee claimants who are citizens of a country other than the United States that arrive from the United States at the Canada–United States land border can only pursue their refugee claims in Canada if they meet an exception under the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The agreement was signed on December 5, 2002 in Washington, D.C. by Bertin Côté (Deputy Head of Mission, Embassy of Canada) and Arthur E. Dewey (Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, United States Department of State). It entered into force on December 29, 2004.[1]

Areas of effect[edit]

The Safe Third Country Agreement applies to refugee claimants who are seeking entry to Canada or the United States at Canada-United States land border crossings (including by train). It also applies at airports if a person seeking refugee protection in one country was determined not to be a refugee in the other, and is in transit through the other country as part of their deportation. For example, a refugee claimant in Canada who has been determined not to be a refugee in the United States, has been ordered deported from the United States, and is in transit through a Canadian airport as part of their removal from the United States.

Exceptions to the agreement[edit]

Exceptions to the Safe Third Country Agreement are defined as four types: family member exceptions, unaccompanied minors exception, document holder exceptions, and public interest exceptions.

In addition to meeting the criteria for an exception under the agreement, refugee claimants must still meet all other eligibility criteria of the relevant immigration legislation for the country they are claiming status in.

Refugee claimants who enter Canada at official crossings usually are sent back to the US. However if they cross at locations in between designated ports of entry, they would not be sent back and their claims will be heard. Many immigration experts consider this to be a loophole within the agreement. [2][3]

Controversy and calls for suspension[edit]

Following U.S. executive orders[edit]

Shortly after inauguration, U.S. President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769, which suspended the United States Refugee Admissions Program and banned travel from seven African and Middle Eastern countries; Executive Order 13768, which revoked eligibility for federal funding for sanctuary jurisdictions; and Executive Order 13767, which directed that a wall be built along the Mexico–United States border.

Calls for suspension[edit]

In response to Executive Order 13769, immigrant and civil rights advocacy groups in Canada called for the federal government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement.[4] These groups included Amnesty International,[5] the Canadian Civil Liberties Association,[6] the Association québécoise des avocats et avocates en droit de l'immigration,[7] the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association,[8][9] the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers,[10] the Canadian Council for Refugees,[11] and a group of 200 law professors from universities across Canada.[12]

Emergency parliamentary debate[edit]

On January 30, 2017, Jenny Kwan (New Democratic Party critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship) proposed an emergency debate on "President Trump's ban on immigration and travel from seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa".[13]

During the debate, the New Democratic Party called on the government to immediately suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, citing that "Canada can no longer have confidence that the American refugee system is providing a safe haven for those who face persecution".[14] The Official Opposition Conservative Party of Canada stated that they would not oppose a suspension of the agreement,[15] while the Green Party of Canada voiced support for suspending the agreement.[16]

Ahmed Hussen, speaking as Canada's Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, claimed that the conditions of the Safe Third Country Agreement continued to be met. The governing Liberal Party of Canada did not communicate any plans or intentions to suspend the agreement.[17]

Compliance with international law[edit]

Safe third country agreements are not explicitly mentioned in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Instead, their legality is derived from Article 31 of the convention, which states that a refugee should not be punished for illegally entering a country if they are arriving directly from a country where they were under threat. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) itself has cautioned against interpreting safe third country agreements too broadly, though it acknowledges that they may be acceptable in some circumstances.[18] Such ambiguities have led some legal professionals in Canada to question the legality of the Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement.[19]

Irregular border crossings[edit]

As of February 2017, increasing numbers of refugee claimants began to cross the Canadian border at locations other than official border checkpoints. This is in order to avoid the effects of the agreement, any refugees presenting at a border crossing would be automatically turned back to the United States under the STCA provisions.[20] Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, asylum seekers are able to cross at places other than official border checkpoints, thereby legally circumventing the STCA.[21] In some cases, these refugees have received amputations due to frostbite[19] and concerns have been raised that some refugees may freeze to death on their way across the border.[22]

Julie Taub, an immigration and refugee lawyer, claims that, since the introduction of the agreement in late 2004, the Canada Border Services Agency has lost its capacity and would be "overwhelmed" if the agreement were repealed.[19]

Since the beginning of January 2017 and up until the end of March 2018, the RCMP have intercepted 25,645 people crossing the border into Canada at places other than official border checkpoints. Public Safety Canada estimates another 2,500 came across in April 2018 for a total at just over 28,000.[23] As of early 2019, over 40,000 people crossed into Canada from the United States since early 2017.[24]


  1. ^ a b "Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of the United States of America for cooperation in the examination of refugee status claims from nationals of third countries". Treaty Law Division. Global Affairs Canada.
  2. ^ "Would scrapping Safe Third Country Agreement lead to influx of asylum seekers? Not necessarily. | CBC News". CBC. Retrieved 2018-09-12.
  3. ^ "A 'safe country' dilemma for Canada". OpenCanada. Retrieved 2018-09-12.
  4. ^ Desjardins, Lynn (January 31, 2017). "Calls for Canada to act in light of U.S. travel ban". Radio Canada International. Retrieved February 1, 2017.
  5. ^ "safe-third-country"-designation-refugee-claimants "Canada must strip USA of "safe third country" designation for refugee claimants". Amnesty International Canada. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  6. ^ "CCLA calls for concrete action from Canadian government on U.S. travel ban". Canadian Civil Liberties Association. 29 January 2017.
  7. ^ "Quebec immigration lawyers want Canada out of Safe Third Country Agreement". Montreal Gazette. The Canadian Press. 31 January 2017.
  8. ^ "Canada must suspend 'Safe Third Country' refugee agreement with US". BC Civil Liberties Association. Retrieved 2017-02-11.
  9. ^ Judd, Amy. "Canada should suspend Safe Third Country agreement with the U.S. says B.C. group". Global News. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  10. ^ "Press Release: CARL calls for Suspension of Safe Third Country Agreement, Increased Refugee Re-Settlement, in Wake of Trump Executive Orders". Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  11. ^ "CCR responds to US anti-refugee, anti-Muslim measures". Canadian Council for Refugees. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  12. ^ "Law Professors call for Suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement". Osgoode Hall Law School. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  13. ^ "Jenny Kwan, "Request for Emergency Debate" on Jan. 30th, 2017". Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  14. ^ "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 130 (Official Version)". Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  15. ^ "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 130 (Official Version)". Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  16. ^ "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 130 (Official Version)". Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  17. ^ "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 130 (Official Version)". Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  18. ^ "What is a safe third country?". Norwegian Refugee Council. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  19. ^ a b c "February 10, 2017 full episode transcript". The Current. CBC Radio. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  20. ^ "27 asylum seekers crossed into Manitoba Saturday: reeve". CBC News. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  21. ^ "Four myths about Canada's border crossings". ISANS. Retrieved 2019-10-10.
  22. ^ "Manitoba border town 'willing to step up' to assist during refugee surge". CBC News. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  23. ^ [1]
  24. ^ Wright, Teresa (2019-04-09). "Refugee advocates 'shocked and dismayed' over asylum changes in budget bill". CBC. Retrieved 2019-04-10.

External links[edit]