Good morning, and thank you very much for the invitation. It's always a pleasure to be in front of the standing committee, and particularly so on this issue.
I am going to avoid talking about theories or technicalities. We are front-line workers who work with refugees every day. We are privy to exhaustive and distressing evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, that the safe third country agreement between the United States and Canada is a disaster for the access of refugees to Canada.
As an example, in 2006, 20% of the claims made were made at the U.S.-Canada border, against 35% of the claims made in 2004; that's a reduction of 15% of the claims, which means that the border is closing for a lot of particular groups. In 2006, 71 % of ineligible claims were because of the safe third country agreement. This reason didn't exist before 2004; 71% of the ineligible claims are due to the safe third country agreement, which gives you another number on reduction of access.
I oppose, and we oppose as an organization, the agreement. As we monitor the agreement through the people we serve, it's confirmed in practical terms in the suffering of the people we serve. We are appalled by the reality of implementation—how difficult it is for people fleeing persecution to understand that the agreement goes against the vein of Canadian human logic. As you can see, my repulsion to the agreement is very deep, but I will try to put it clearly and logically to you in very concrete examples.
The first example is that we don't have any review mechanism for the safe third country agreement. What is happening is that we manage to find something that is really urgent, and you or the cabinet or the minister of immigration— someone—has to pay attention to that. We don't have any kind of mechanism to do it in a particular way. That's the first concern we have—how we can address the concerns we have, because there is no mechanism.
The lack of public and accessible clarity regarding the agreement is our second biggest concern. There is no available information on the agreement accessible to the people in need. CIC and CBSA have made some efforts to provide that information, but they provide it at the website; most of the time refugees coming into Canada don't have access to that information. In other words, there is an absence of mechanisms to inform them before they reach the border. This lack of information is behind the general confusion throughout the refugee communities about the agreement. The rumours that the U.S.-Canada border is closed are still flourishing. After years of implementation, the people still believe that the door is closed, that Canada has closed the door. That's because of lack of information.
Where do potential claimants in the United States go for information on how the agreement and the exceptions pertain to them? Where? They can go to the NGOs sometimes, the American NGOs, but not everybody there has the information to provide. They are not experts on the safe third country agreement. When the claimants are at the border in front of the Canadian authorities, it is too late to be informed that they don't meet the exceptions. If the claimant doesn't meet the exceptions, the person is sent back to the United States under serious threat, as you have heard, of being detained, and sometimes just to be put on fast-track removal procedures. Then the person is gone.
How exactly do the criteria, according to our experience, work at the ports of entry? We have heard and we have seen in several cases involving the issue that the notice said they are rejected because there is insufficient disclosure of the reasons for rejection. Sometimes the people receive notice saying there is insufficient information. At other times the explanations they receive are so vague that you don't have anything to use in challenging the information.
The problem is there is nothing you can find in the agreement that allows for a review of that important decision. There is no appeal process and no meaningful access to judicial review. There is not a mechanism for a person to review that decision made by immigration workers at the border in Canada who send the person back. There is no time to do anything else, because the person is on their way back to the United States.
More urgently, human lives are demonstrably put at risk by this policy. Individuals are endangered in a climate of increased irregular border crossings and increased vulnerability to trafficking and dangerous smuggling practices. We know CBSA and the RCMP say they don't have data about these things. Well, of course not. They are illegal things, so there is no data to confirm them. But if you go to my office every day, you will see people arriving. They just crossed the border undetected, and they have sometimes paid up to $10,000 to find a way to come to Canada.
A look at who is eligible or who is not under the exemptions of this agreement seems thoroughly arbitrary to me. It is unjust and very discriminatory against particular groups of people. For everybody in Canada, including the standing committee, it is unacceptable for you to accept those criteria.
This is unfair, and you have a say in it. This is not logical. The only group of people who are sustaining this as the way to go is the cabinet of Canada. This is a heritage that the Conservative Party received, and I don't believe you deserve it.
Why are only the countries under the deportation moratorium exempted? Why is the source country list not considered as an exception, for instance? Why are Mexicans allowed to come to our border and make a claim, yet Colombians are sent back? How do you explain that a Mexican is a yes and a Colombian is a no? I do not understand. Please help me to understand this illogical framework.
Can you help us to stop this nonsense, please? Can you help us to stop the discrimination based on origin, on where you come from? You are allowed to make a claim, but if you are coming from this particular country, you are out. Can you help us to stop these policies that put people at risk? Can you help us to stop the border of Canada from becoming like the southern border of the United States with Mexico, where the smugglers have the reins and are the kings of the whole border?
At our office every week we receive several phone calls from people who are living in desperate situations in the United States, due to their lack of status. Some of them have left their country due to persecution and there is no option to go back to their country, but there is no option for them to have legal status in the United States.
Believe me, the tone of voice denotes desperation, and the questions are always the same: “How can I go to Canada? How can we go to Canada?” Our first role as an organization is to try to calm them down, to ask them to try to trust a voice on the phone, a voice that is going to provide information about the agreement, that is going to ask questions about situations in order that we can provide the best advice we can give. But what can we say to someone when they call from Florida, Atlanta, or wherever, and we have to tell them that we're sorry, but there's no space in Canada for them because they don't meet the exceptions?
The sarcasm of the ineligible claimants is very appealing in the answers we receive over the phone. You will see how logic is not involved in this. They say, “Are you telling me that if I do not meet any of the exceptions and I go to the border, I will be refused because the United States is a safe third country, but if I manage to fly from the United States to any city in Canada or if I manage to arrive at any Canadian port, even though I have been living in the United States, I, the same person, will be eligible to make a claim and the United States is not a safe country any longer?” How do you respond to that?
In our office during the last year, at least five cases per month have contacted the office by phone, and we have seen these people in Canada later on. Some 62% of the claims are made inland. In 2004, before the safe third country agreement was implemented, only 45% of the claims were made inland, so we have had an increase. That clearly documents that some of these people have crossed the border undocumented.
The other question they ask us is, “Are you telling me that if I do not have relatives in Canada, I will not be eligible because the United States is a safe country, but if I somehow manage to produce a relative in Canada, I can go to the border, and even though I have been living in the United States, I, the same person, will be eligible to make a claim and the United States is not a safe country any longer?” “What does that have to do with what happened to me back home?”, they ask. “What does that have to do with my seeking protection?” Do you know that at the border the exception based on families is the second highest used, at 31%. These people are producing relatives in Canada.
The other question is, “Are you telling me that if a member of my family managed to cross the border undetected and made an inland refugee claim later on, the rest of the family could go to the border, and even though they have been living in the United States, these same persons will be eligible to make a claim that the United States is not a safe third country for them any longer?” We have at least one case like that in our office. They were accepted by the IRB even though they were already refused by the asylum system in the United States. Now the whole family, thanks to the courage of their mother, is waiting for their permanent residence status in Canada.
“Are you telling me that if I already was determined to be ineligible by the Canadian authorities at the border but if I waited for six months in the United States and I crossed the border undetected, even though I have been living in the United States, I, the same person, would be able to make a claim for PRA and the United States is not a safe country any longer? How come?”
“If I were to enter Canada undetected without waiting for the six months to pass, I would be found ineligible even inside Canada and my claim wouldn't be accepted. I would be ineligible for PRA because I didn't wait for the six months, and I would be deported back to my country of origin, facing persecution, without any evaluation by the U.S. or by Canada of whether I have a well-founded fear of prosecution or not.” We have at least four cases like that in Canada right now—one in Montreal, one in Winnipeg, and two in Toronto.
As you can see, the safe third country agreement breaks with Canada's historical international reputation for solidarity, in our opinion, in the most illogical way possible. It contravenes even the Canadian common sense of our moral and legal duties under international law. And let me say that the safe third country agreement particularly breaks with our Canadian commitment to increasing the protection of women against abuse and violence.
Please ask Immigration Canada how this safe third country agreement protects women, how the safe third country agreement increases the possibilities of women to access protection, and how this agreement increases the access of women to Canada. It doesn't.
In fact, the statistics on refugee claims for 2005 are totally clear. The land border claims show how male claims at 54% outnumber female claims. That has been the way the agreement has been going in the last two years.
I am asking the standing committee today to help us and to stop returning people to a country that may return them to persecution, without hearing what happened to that person. I am asking for more access for refugee women. If the United States returns an ineligible person to persecution, that, any way you put it, amounts to our returning them ourselves to persecution.
The Arar case set a clear precedent in this regard. The Arar report says loudly and clearly that it is wrong to send people to persecution. Do not allow this just because the claimants are not Canadian citizens.
Thank you very much.