Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement

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Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement
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
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[a] (STCA) is a treaty, entered into force on 29 December 2004, 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 in which they arrive, between 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 who arrive from the US 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.

In March 2023, the Safe Third Country Agreement was updated to enact tougher immigration policies, especially with regards to asylum seekers and border crossing at 'irregular' border crossings like Roxham Road.[2][3]

The STCA has faced challenges in the Canadian courts alleging that Canada's participation violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After success for the challengers in Federal Court in 2020, but overturn in the Federal Court of Appeal, in June 2023 the Supreme Court of Canada found no violation of section 7 of the Charter, but sent the case back to Federal Court for review of whether it might violate section 15.[4]


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, U.S. Department of State).


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 rail). It also applies at airports if a person who is seeking refugee protection in country B was determined not to be a refugee in country A, and is in transit through country A 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 Safe Third Country Agreement are defined as four types:

  1. family member exceptions;
  2. unaccompanied minors exception;
  3. document holder exceptions; and
  4. 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 that they are claiming status in. Though refugee claimants who enter Canada at official crossings are usually sent back to the US, they would not be sent back if they cross at locations in between designated ports of entry; in this case, their claims will be heard, and many immigration experts consider this to be a loophole within the agreement.[5][6]

2023 revision[edit]

On March 24, 2023, the U.S. and Canada revised the asylum seeker policy. Under the revision, Canada will be allowed to send migrants who cross at unofficial ports of entry at America's northern border back to the U.S., while the U.S. will also be able to turn back asylum seekers who travel across the border from Canada.[3] In return, Canada agreed to allow 15,000 more people from the Western Hemisphere to migrate to Canada legally.[3] Nevertheless, the revision is acknowledged to have limited the movement of asylum seekers.[2] Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed that the revisions would go into effect that midnight.[3]

Controversy and calls for suspension[edit]

Following U.S. executive orders[edit]

Shortly after inauguration, U.S. President Donald Trump signed these Executive Orders, which have since been revoked by his successor, Joe Biden:

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.[7] These groups included Amnesty International,[8] the Canadian Civil Liberties Association,[9] the Association québécoise des avocats et avocates en droit de l'immigration,[10] the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association,[11][12] the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers,[13] the Canadian Council for Refugees,[14] and a group of 200 law professors from universities across Canada.[15]

Emergency parliamentary debate[edit]

On January 30, 2017, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) critic Jenny Kwan, of the New Democratic Party (NDP), proposed an emergency debate on "President Trump's ban on immigration and travel from seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa."[16] During the debate, the NDP 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."[17] The Official Opposition Conservative Party of Canada stated that they would not oppose a suspension of the agreement,[18] while the Green Party of Canada voiced support for suspending the agreement.[19]

Ahmed Hussen, speaking as Canada's Minister of IRCC, 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.[20]

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 1951 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.[21] Such ambiguities have led some legal professionals in Canada to question the legality of the Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement.[22]

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.[23] As it is not illegal under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act or its associated regulations to cross the border outside of a port of entry as long as the person presents themselves to a Canada Border Services Agency officer without delay and STCA does not apply to claims outside of a port of entry, it is possible for persons otherwise ineligible to make a claim after crossing irregularly.[24] In some cases, these refugees have received amputations due to frostbite[22] and concerns have been raised that some refugees may freeze to death on their way across the border.[25]

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.[22]

A family preparing to enter Canada, where RCMP await them, via the Roxham Road irregular crossing in August 2017

From January 2017 to March 2018, the RCMP intercepted 25,645 people crossing the border into Canada outside official border checkpoints.[citation needed] Roxham Road near the route between Plattsburgh, New York and Montreal saw the most crossings and became a proxy name for this trend.[citation needed] Public Safety Canada estimates another 2,500 came across in April 2018 for a total at just over 28,000.[26] As of early 2019, over 40,000 people crossed into Canada from the United States since early 2017.[27]

One popular, but also unofficial, border crossing would be shut down as a result of the 2023 STCA.[2]

Legal challenges[edit]

On the Canadian side, the STCA has been challenged on the grounds that lack of safety laws to protect refugees in the United States gives refugees legitimate grounds to cross over to Canada for a better life. On December 29, 2005, a group of refugee and human-rights organizations (both in Canada & the U.S.) instigated a legal challenge of the U.S.'s claim as a third safe country for refugees seeking asylum. This legal challenge was supported by prominent figures such as Judge Michael Phelan of the Federal Court of Canada on November 29, 2007, and many others.

Canada's Federal Court ruled on July 22, 2020, that the Safe Third Country Agreement was invalid because it infringes on the rights of asylum seekers, specifically rights guaranteed under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to "life, liberty, and security of the person."[28][29] As when enforcing STCA, the refugees returning to the US are detained and imprisoned there, which is a “foreseeable” consequence of Canada's actions. The decision was suspended for six months to allow time for the Parliament of Canada to respond by changing legislation or for the government to appeal the decision.[30] The decision was stayed again on October 26, 2020, by the Federal Court of Appeal to allow time to hear the case.[31] The appeal was granted by the Federal Court of Appeal in April 2021, overturning the earlier Federal Court decision and upholding the STCA as constitutional.[32]

On June 16, 2023, the Supreme Court of Canada found that Canada's participation in the agreement did not violate section 7 of the Charter, but sent the case back to Federal Court for review of whether it might violate section 15.[4]


  1. ^ Officially named: 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]


  1. ^ "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. ^ a b c Rose, Joel (March 24, 2023). "U.S. and Canada reach a deal to close a popular but unofficial border crossing". NPR. Retrieved March 24, 2023.
  3. ^ a b c d Gittleson, Ben; Hutzler, Alexander (March 24, 2023). "Biden meets with Trudeau as US, Canada announce immigration agreement". ABC News. Retrieved March 24, 2023.
  4. ^ a b Tasker, John Paul (June 16, 2023). "Supreme Court upholds agreement that lets Canada send refugees back to U.S."
  5. ^ "Would scrapping Safe Third Country Agreement lead to influx of asylum seekers? Not necessarily. | CBC News". CBC. Retrieved 2018-09-12.
  6. ^ "A 'safe country' dilemma for Canada". OpenCanada. Retrieved 2018-09-12.
  7. ^ Desjardins, Lynn (January 31, 2017). "Calls for Canada to act in light of U.S. travel ban". Radio Canada International. Retrieved February 1, 2017.
  8. ^ "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.[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ "CCLA calls for concrete action from Canadian government on U.S. travel ban". Canadian Civil Liberties Association. 29 January 2017.
  10. ^ "Quebec immigration lawyers want Canada out of Safe Third Country Agreement". Montreal Gazette. The Canadian Press. 31 January 2017.
  11. ^ "Canada must suspend 'Safe Third Country' refugee agreement with US". BC Civil Liberties Association. Retrieved 2017-02-11.
  12. ^ Judd, Amy. "Canada should suspend Safe Third Country agreement with the U.S. says B.C. group". Global News. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  13. ^ "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.
  14. ^ "CCR responds to US anti-refugee, anti-Muslim measures". Canadian Council for Refugees. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  15. ^ "Law Professors call for Suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement". Osgoode Hall Law School. Retrieved 1 February 2017.
  16. ^ "Jenny Kwan, "Request for Emergency Debate" on Jan. 30th, 2017". Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  17. ^ "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 130 (Official Version)". Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  18. ^ Saroya, Bob. "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 130 (Official Version)". Archived from the original on 2017-02-12. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  19. ^ May, Elizabeth. "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 130 (Official Version)". Archived from the original on 2017-02-12. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  20. ^ "Official Report * Table of Contents * Number 130 (Official Version)". Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  21. ^ "What is a safe third country?". Norwegian Refugee Council. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  22. ^ a b c "February 10, 2017 full episode transcript". The Current. CBC Radio. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  23. ^ "27 asylum seekers crossed into Manitoba Saturday: reeve". CBC News. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  24. ^ "Four myths about Canada's border crossings". ISANS. 22 May 2018. Retrieved 2019-10-10.
  25. ^ "Manitoba border town 'willing to step up' to assist during refugee surge". CBC News. Retrieved 2017-02-12.
  26. ^ "Fewer than 1% of more than 28,000 irregular asylum seekers have been removed from Canada so far | CBC News".
  27. ^ Wright, Teresa (2019-04-09). "Refugee advocates 'shocked and dismayed' over asylum changes in budget bill". CBC. Retrieved 2019-04-10.
  28. ^ Keung, Nicholas (22 July 2020). "Canadian court says Safe Third Country Agreement with U.S. violates charter". Welland Tribune. Retrieved 22 July 2020.
  29. ^ Canadian Council for Refugees v Canada (Immigration, Refugees and citizenship), 2020 FC 770 (Federal Court).
  30. ^ "Canadian court rules 'Safe Third Country' pact with U.S. is invalid". National Post. Reuters. 22 July 2020. Retrieved 22 July 2020.
  31. ^ "Canada (Citizenship and Immigration) v. Canadian Council for Refugees". Federal Court of Appeal. 10 September 2013. Retrieved 15 November 2020.
  32. ^ "Federal Court of Appeal upholds Safe Third Country Agreement". Radio Canada International. 15 April 2021. Retrieved 15 August 2021.

External links[edit]