In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's temporary on refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches ponders whether to pursue legal action against the federal government to pull out of the Safe Third Country Agreement. CNS photo/Muhammad Hamed, Reuters

Canada’s churches ponder court action over refugee pact

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  • February 8, 2017

As the storm over the fate of refugees intensifies in the United States, Canada’s churches are deliberating whether or not to take the federal government to court to pull Canada out of its Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S.

On Feb. 6, the governing council of the Canadian Council of Churches debated the question of legal action versus continued lobbying against the agreement which prevents refugees who have already landed in the United States from coming across Canada’s land border. By the end of the day, the churches’ representatives could not decide.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has so far resisted calls to suspend or pull out of the agreement signed in 2002 between the Harper government and the George W. Bush administration.

The governing council of the Canadian Council of Churches is “unanimously concerned about the Safe Third Country Agreement,” said CCC deputy general secretary Peter Noteboom. But the council, which only acts on the full consensus of all members, could not agree on whether now was the time for a court challenge.

At press time, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops could not say whether it supported court action or continued lobbying.

Students at all 22 law schools in Canada volunteered over the weekend for a “research-a-thon” to help build the case for a renewed court challenge.

Calls for suspension or withdrawal from the Safe Third Country Agreement have been raining down on Ottawa since a flurry of executive orders and memoranda by President Donald Trump tried to stop all refugee arrivals for 120 days, ban travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, cut the U.S. refugee resettlement program from 110,000 to 50,000 this year, add 10,000 immigration officers at the U.S.-Mexican border and begin construction of a wall along the U.S. southern border. The ban on travel from seven countries was temporarily halted by a Federal judge in Washington State.

The net effect of the executive orders has been to create an atmosphere of fear in the refugee community, even on this side of the border.

“We were talking this morning about having conversations with (refugee) children who are incredibly aware of the political climate,” Romero House intern Brenna Sobanski told The Catholic Register. “That says something, that children are spending their time thinking and worried about what’s happening.”

The Canadian Council of Churches is worried that the U.S. is now unable or unwilling to comply with the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, said Noteboom.

“The executive order goes down the wrong direction,” he said.

There’s still time for Ottawa to suspend and review the agreement before any court action becomes necessary, said Canadian Council for Refugees executive director Janet Dench.

“We’re hoping that the government will look at the situation in the United States and decide that, without us having to go to court, that the U.S. can no longer be called safe for refugees,” she said.

In 2005, the CCC joined forces with Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees to challenge the Canada-U.S. agreement on refugees and won a 2007 Federal Court decision. The Federal Court found that the U.S. was not in all cases a safe country for refugees. But this was nullified at the Federal Court of Appeal in 2008, which ruled that whether the Americans actually complied with refugee processing standards in the agreement was irrelevant.

For the agreement to be valid, the Canadian government only had to “consider” whether the U.S. was living up to human rights obligations, said the appeals court.

The Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Council of Churches and Amnesty International have always opposed the Canada-U.S. agreement. When the agreement was signed, the U.S. was sending Colombian refugees back without hearing their cases. Now the worry is Muslim refugees from an entire range of Middle Eastern and North African countries.

“Things were never good,” said Dench. “We have held the position that the United States was not safe for all refugees. But right now there’s obviously a particular reason for being concerned about what level of safety the United States can assure refugee claimants.”

For the Canadian Council of Churches, challenging the Safe Third Country Agreement is part of a tradition that goes back to the founding of the organization after the Second World War, said Noteboom.

The theology is not complicated, said CCC general secretary Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton in an email from Europe, where she was attending meetings.

“The Old Testament witness is clear. We are compelled… to care for the ‘Widow, the orphan and the sojourner,’ ” she wrote. “The New Testament witness is just as clear. Jesus was a refugee in Egypt and when we do this for the least of these, our sisters and brothers, we do it for Him.”

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