Refugees are people who flee their countries because they have 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 claims in more than one of them.
Among countries with similar legal standards, evaluating the same person’s claims separately 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. cannot claim asylum in Canada, although there are some exceptions, including for unaccompanied minors and for family members of Canadian citizens or permanent residents. In addition, until March 2023, the STCA applied only at official land border crossings.
Beginning in 2017, more asylum seekers began crossing the border into Canada through unofficial border crossings, circumventing the application of the STCA and allowing them to make a claim for refugee protection. Consequently, while some parties renewed their advocacy for broadening the STCA to apply to these types of crossings, others argued for suspending the agreement so that Canada could assess asylum claims independently of U.S. decisions.
In March 2023, the governments of Canada and the U.S. announced an additional protocol to the STCA which expanded the scope of the STCA to apply to the entire land border – including certain bodies of water – and not just official land border crossings. Under the revised agreement, individuals who cross the border between official ports of entry are ineligible to apply for asylum in the first 14 days after their arrival and may be returned to the U.S. during this period, if they do not qualify for an exception. The Additional Protocol to the STCA took effect on 25 March 2023.
In June 2023, a challenge to the constitutionality of the STCA culminated with the Supreme Court of Canada’s finding that the designation of the U.S. as a safe third country does not breach the rights to life, liberty and security of the person under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (Charter). However, the Court declined to determine whether this designation breaches equality rights under section 15 of the Charter – a separate issue that remains before the courts.
Read the full text of the HillStudy: Overview of the Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement
By Philippe Antoine, Robert Mason and Madalina Chesoi, Library of Parliament