In light of looming deportations from the US for some 200,000 Salvadorans, Canada must reconsider its refugee process and rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The Trump administration’s contempt toward immigrants and refugees is no longer a surprise, but it seems Canadian decision-makers haven’t got the memo.

In what has now become classic fashion, the United States government kicked off 2018 by announcing an end to the Temporary Protected Status of some 200,000 Salvadorans who now face deportation if they fail to leave the United States by September 2019.

For a majority of Salvadorans, returning to their home country is not an option. “There’s no end to reports on the situation in El Salvador,” Gloria Nafziger, refugee, migrants and country campaigner at Amnesty International in Toronto told me. “The gang violence has been described as a war zone.” An Amnesty International report released this week, Overlooked, Under-Protected, cites high homicide rates and threats of violence throughout the region.

With limited options, Salvadorans in the United States can either return to a country still plagued by political and economic strife or try their luck elsewhere. As time runs out, no one should be surprised if they turn to Canada. The problem is that Canada refuses to recognize how poorly the United States is treating many refugees, which makes it almost impossible for them to seek protection here.

This is because of a policy known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between Canada and the United States, which renders the vast majority of refugee claims made at the border ineligible. Instead, when refugee claimants arrive at a Canadian port of entry, most are immediately turned over to US immigration officials. From there, it’s likely that removal proceedings will follow, accelerating deportation to their countries of origin.

But this process may very well violate a central tenet of international law, which states that refugee claimants must not be returned to the countries they’ve fled if doing so could result in persecution or serious harm. With the current state of affairs in El Salvador, this outcome is a real possibility.

Among many diaspora groups in the United States, it’s common knowledge that the STCA stands in the way of protection. “Every refugee community has a blog about the Safe Third Country Agreement: about where to go and what to do to get in,” Francisco Rico-Martinez, codirector of the Toronto-based FCJ Refugee Centre, told me in an interview. Rico-Martinez and his family arrived as sponsored refugees from El Salvador in 1990.

While the STCA is in place, Salvadorans looking to Canada will probably enter irregularly, that is, by walking across the border and bypassing a port of entry. Rico-Martinez is fearful of the impact these irregular crossings will have on the safety of refugees desperate to seek protection. “Smugglers are my biggest concern,” he says.

He’s not alone. An event discussing the smuggling of migrants held during the UN’s 2016 Preparatory Process for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration revealed how, with reduced access to international borders and regular channels for movement, migrants are increasingly turning to smuggling networks.

Criticism of the STCA has been mounting. In July 2017, Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Council of Churches have joined in a legal challenge aimed at scrapping the policy altogether. They believe the United States is not a safe country for all refugees. In fact, refugees continue to risk their lives out of fear of being deported from the United States. Earlier this month, refugee claimant Kangni Kouevi suffered from severe frostbite during his journey from North Dakota to Emerson, Manitoba.

Canadians need to understand that, for many refugees in the United States, these desperate times are calling for desperate measures. Our government can respond by pulling out of the STCA and allowing these refugees to safely come to Canada. Instead, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has paraded MPs across the United States in a campaign to discourage diaspora groups from making the trip north.

If the government truly wants to address waves of migration and live up to its international commitments as a party to the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, at a minimum we should offer all refugee claimants due process, regardless of the country they arrive from. The best way to discourage refugees from crossing irregularly and unsafely is to give them access to regular channels to enter Canada.

By allowing Salvadorans to make a safe claim in Canada, we’ll avoid the optics of the mass irregular crossings that have begun to erode public confidence in our immigration system.

From left, Alfredo Rivas, Fredy Cruz and Nelson Gonzales, all originally from El Salvador, pose during a local fundraising party in Montreal in April 2017, where funds collected go to relatives back home. All three came to Canada in 1987. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

This approach would harken back to the early 1980s when conflict throughout Central America prompted Canada to respond. While the United States denied refugee status to many Salvadorans fleeing civil unrest, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau allowed more than a thousand to gain protection.

Today another Trudeau sits in office, and history is in some ways repeating itself. Canada has a duty to act. In light of looming deportations for some 200,000 Salvadorans, it’s time for Canada to reconsider our refugee process along the Canada-US border and rescind the STCA.

Photo: Celina Benitez, who was born in El Salvador and migrated to the US as a young child and is now a US citizen, speaks during a rally held by CASA de Maryland, an immigration advocacy and assistance organization on Jan. 8, 2018.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)


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