World News

Trudeau Doesn’t Separate Refugee Families, but He Does Send Them Away

Posted June 22, 2018 9:32 p.m. EDT

This week’s news was dominated by President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy on illegal immigration and how it led to the separation of more than 2,000 children from their parents. I’ve also been thinking about what issues the controversy raises for Canada.

To much of the world, Canada is seen as the good guy when it comes to asylum-seekers. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau famously handed winter coats to the first of what would be 33,000 Syrian refugees who came to Canada starting in late 2015, saying, “You’re safe at home now.” And Ahmed Hussen, Trudeau’s immigration minister, came to Canada as a 16-year-old refugee from Somalia.

But many people in the immigration world say that at least one key part of Trudeau’s policy is indefensible in light of Trump’s southern border crackdown: how it limits the ability of asylum-seekers to get in.

“Canada looks better with how it treats asylum-seekers after they arrive,” Audrey Macklin, a chair in human rights law and a professor at the University of Toronto’s law school, told me this week. “But Canada is harsher and more effective at preventing asylum-seekers from arriving.”

Canada’s location isolates it from countries where refugees are fleeing on foot or by boat, making such control easier.

Trudeau joined the chorus of those condemning the Trump administration for its detention of children in shelters near the border. But Canada has a similar practice, if on a much smaller scale and with the children generally alongside relatives. Last year, 151 children were held at Canada’s immigration centers, effectively medium-security prisons that have been criticized as unsuitable homes for minors. Of that total, 11 were not with an adult.

The Trudeau government has vowed to cut those numbers and improve the system.

But it won’t budge on what Macklin and others call the bigger issue: the “safe third country” agreement with the United States.

The agreement, drawn up in border-security talks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, essentially allows Canada to turn back any asylum-seekers who show up at regular border crossings, since Canada has declared the United States to be a safe place for refugees. That has led some asylum-seekers to try to cross into Canada from the United States “illegally,” to use the government’s term, or “irregularly” as Macklin prefers, particularly in Quebec.

Macklin and others have long rejected the idea that the United States is a safe place to seek asylum. The current border turmoil, she said, has only reinforced that view.

Trudeau said this week that he had no plans to end the agreement, without offering much in the way of a defense of it.

The agreement is now being challenged in court for a second time. It was struck down in 2008 by the Federal Court but that decision was overturned on appeal.

Macklin, meanwhile, has a more provocative proposal for killing the agreement. “If Donald Trump understood what the first safe country agreement does,” she said — meaning that it pushes immigrants back to the United States — “he would have been the first to suspend it.”