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Asylum in Canada: How New Trends Compare to the United States

On April 8, 2019, the Canadian government proposed a significant change to the country’s asylum system: an amendment that would prevent individuals who have made an asylum claim in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, or New Zealand from seeking refugee status in Canada. The move has received much media attention, particularly due to its seeming divergence from the country’s reputation of being welcoming to refugees, and has been criticized by immigration activists. The proposal, which was part of a budget bill introduced in Canada’s parliament, indicates that the increased migrant flows in our hemisphere have put similar pressure on Canada and the United States to adjust their asylum processes.

In addition to allowing Canada to turn away some asylum seekers, the proposed budget increases funding dedicated to processing asylum claims and enhancing border security. Should it pass, the amendment would represent a large redirection of Canada’s resources toward this issue: 1.05 billion Canadian dollars for the year, an increase of hundreds of millions of dollars over last year. About 20,000 asylum seekers crossed the U.S. border into Canada in 2018, and the system has struggled to keep up.

Critics of the proposal have expressed concern that it may endanger asylees. All of these individuals will still be eligible to take a Pre-Removal Risk Assessment, however, which examines the level of danger should they be returned to their home country, although this process is less robust than a full asylum hearing, only offered at the discretion of immigration officers, and harder to pass. It’s also noteworthy that aside from this proposed adjustment to the asylum system, Canada will continue to accept an increasing number of permanent residents annually under its regular immigration system—something that the United States under the Trump administration does not mirror. Canada is calling this an effort to address only “irregular migration.” Some have chalked it up to Trudeau’s reelection concerns, given that Canadians are increasingly expressing concern about the flow of asylum seekers north across the border.

In addition to the legislative changes, Canada is asking the United States to renegotiate the 2002 Safe Third Country Agreement. This agreement mandates that asylum seekers that arrive to the United States or Canada must ask for asylum in the first country in which they arrive, although there are some exceptions. As is, the agreement means that asylum seekers that cross from the United States to Canada at ports of entry are turned back to the United States because Canada considers the United States “safe” for these individuals. The desired renegotiation would close a so-called “loophole” credited with encouraging migrants to cross between ports of entry.

Because this agreement cannot be enforced between ports of entry, it has led to a rise in “irregular migration” to Canada. Over 41,000 asylum seekers have crossed the border to Canada from the United States between ports of entry since 2017. Critics of the agreement have expressed concern over the dangers that migrants face attempting to cross the border to Canada on foot when they fear being turned away by Canadian Border Services at ports of entry. Others argue that changes that the Trump administration has made to the U.S. asylum system mean the country should no longer be deemed “safe” for refugees. Amnesty International is among the groups that have challenged the agreement.

It is currently unclear whether the United States will agree to amend the treaty with Canada, but it does seem to be attempting to establish a similar relationship between itself and Mexico to stave off the current stream of Central American migrants arriving. Designating Mexico a “safe” country for refugees could mean that anyone attempting to cross the southern U.S. border seeking asylum would be denied access to the U.S. asylum system if they have not first applied in Mexico. While the Trump administration has been discussing and pursuing the establishment of such an agreement with Mexico, the idea has not been popular with the Mexican government. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard rejected the possibility on June 3, 2019, as the country is dealing with its own challenges due to the influx of Central American migrants. Furthermore, violence rates in Mexico have been on the rise, which may present a challenge for the Trump administration when arguing for a Safe Third-like treaty with Mexico.

The United States has also made significant efforts recently to decease overseas refugee numbers. Humanitarian crises in Central America have pushed migrants toward the United States, but the Trump administration’s cancellation of Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans already in the United States has led to rising numbers of asylum seekers pursuing status in Canada. Although there are differences, it seems clear that in North America, all three countries are facing the challenges of dealing with increased asylum seekers, and at least for Canada and the United States, the response from the governments includes rolling back traditionally more open policies toward these populations.

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