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OTTAWA — The federal Conservatives are calling on Ottawa to allow border guards to send asylum-seekers back to the United States as hundreds cross on foot into Manitoba. But a prominent refugee advocate says that simply isn’t possible under international law.

"Our system now is in shambles," Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel told reporters Wednesday. "We have been talking and asking the government for months to deal with this situation, and we have heard no action."

In May, Rempel visited the Manitoba border community of Emerson, where hundreds have walked into Canada through fields before reporting themselves to police and filing asylum claims. Since then, she's called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to close a "loophole" in a longstanding agreement.

Since 2004, the Safe Third Country Agreement has forbidden most people from making an asylum claim at the Canada-United States land border. But a 1951 United Nations agreement prohibits countries, including Canada, from prosecuting or deporting people who make an asylum claim after illegally crossing outside of border posts.

Though the number of such claimants rose during former U.S. president Barack Obama’s increased deportations, they’ve skyrocketed under current President Donald Trump, with the army now setting up tents for thousands in Quebec.

Rempel doubled down Wednesday, saying Trudeau must "have a look at" expanding the 2004 agreement, so border guards could turn back asylum-seekers.

"I am concerned about that particular loophole exacerbating the backlog," Rempel said, arguing "the spirit of" the 1951 UN rules didn’t mean to include people moving from one safe country to another.

That’s news to the Canadian Council for Refugees, whose head says the 1951 rules clearly forbid countries from deporting people once they've filed an asylum claim. She said the only exception is for people with serious criminal records.

"There's nothing in the Refugee Convention that would say that because we don't approve of the person coming up from the United States… that that gives us a right to violate their fundamental rights," said Janet Dench, adding the 1951 convention says those who physically enter Canada are still entitled to a hearing once they file a claim.

The 2004 agreement only allows officials at formal border stations to turn people back to the United States. It says once people have filed asylum claims, they can only be either granted asylum or sent back to their home country — not pushed back over the Canada-U.S. border.

That means someone from Ghana who claims asylum in Canada must have a hearing to consider whether they can be safely sent back to Ghana. Dench says expanding the 2004 agreement wouldn't change anything for people who have already set foot inside of Canada.

"You cannot send someone back to face persecution, even if you may disapprove of them for whatever moral reasons," said Dench, who also said the U.S. likely wouldn't agree to having asylum-seekers sent back over its border.

Meanwhile, Rempel accused the Liberals of eroding Canadians' trust in the asylum system and giving claimants "false hope" by presenting an openness to refugees without clarifying the high bar to gain refugee status. She said that's led to "tent cities" at the border.

"We're not that far off from frost; let’s be honest here," she said.

The NDP is asking Trudeau to issue a three-month halt to the 2004 agreement, and study pulling out entirely.

"In the light of the events held by hundreds of white supremacists in Charlottesville (Va.) and the anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration, I ask that you reconsider your characterization of the U.S. as a safe country for asylum-seekers," MP Jenny Kwan (Vancouver-Mount Pleasant) wrote this week.

Trudeau told reporters Wednesday Canadian law continues to be enforced, and the country isn’t experiencing "uncontrolled immigration," though it’s fighting rumours of instant residency for people who cross.

He said he’s considering accelerating processing of temporary work permits, to make claimants less dependent on government handouts.


Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"

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