Refugees are people who flee their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Once refugees arrive in another country and seek asylum, international law protects them from being sent back to face serious threats.
Of course, not all asylum claims are successful. Some asylum seekers may not meet the legal definition of a refugee. In other cases, errors or unfairness occur in a country’s assessment of the asylum claim. For various reasons, some asylum seekers pass through multiple countries and make a claim in more than one of them.
Among countries with similar legal standards, separately evaluating the same person’s claims may be considered inefficient. To avoid this, some countries have agreements requiring people to claim asylum only in the first “safe” country they enter. In 2002, Canada and the United States (U.S.) agreed to this type of system, through what is known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).
As a result of the STCA, most people who come to Canada via the U.S. are prevented from claiming asylum in this country. There are some exceptions, including that the STCA applies only at official land border crossings.
However, beginning in 2017, more asylum seekers began crossing the border into Canada between official land border crossings, avoiding the application of the STCA and allowing them to proceed with a claim for asylum. This resulted in renewed advocacy by some to broaden the STCA so that these types of crossings would be included. Others argued for the STCA to be suspended so that Canada would assess asylum claims independently of U.S. decisions.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Canada imposed new temporary measures restricting claims by those who enter Canada between official land border crossings.
In July 2020, the Federal Court of Canada found the STCA to be unconstitutional, following a claim by the Canadian Council for Refugees and other applicants. The Court made this finding based on the rights of all people in Canada to life, liberty and security of the person. The Court noted that asylum seekers whom Canada turns away because of the STCA are automatically imprisoned by U.S. authorities and treated in ways that cause both physical and psychological suffering. The court decided that the STCA would cease to have effect in January 2021. However, this deadline was extended by the Federal Court of Appeal, pending an appeal by the federal government.
Read the full text of the Background Paper: Overview of the Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement
Authors: Madalina Chesoi and Robert Mason, Library of Parliament