Andrew Coyne: Without the Safe Third Country Agreement, we’d soon see how liberal on refugees we really are

Good assessment of some of the implications of the Trump administration and possible suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement:

You must understand, there is never going to be a turning point. People keep expecting, even predicting one: the dramatic “have you no decency, sir” moment when Donald Trump at long last goes too far, even for his supporters, and begins his inevitable decline and fall. But life is not a movie, and resists our attempts to impose a narrative on it.

So yes, Trump has been forced to backtrack, a little, on the most indecent of his many indecencies, the forcible separation from their mothers and fathers of migrant children — some still babies, some kept in cages, some never to see their parents again. Henceforth, by the terms of Trump’s executive order, children and parents will be detained together, indefinitely, while their cases are heard: the “zero tolerance” policy that gave rise to the crisis, mandating that all asylum-seekers who arrive by other than the usual ports of entry be imprisoned, remains in place.

But there will be no agonized reappraisal among his supporters, just because a couple of thousand kids were traumatized, any more than there was after each previous episode when people said “this time he’s gone too far.” We have seen, instead, how it works. They simply lower their standards to meet him, invent more outlandish reasons to believe what they believe — the bawling infants, Ann Coulter suggested, were “child actors,” while the cages in which they were kept, according to Laura Ingraham, were like “boarding schools” — and move on.

If he is not going to change for all the outrage he has stirred up in his own country, he is certainly not going to change because of anything we in this country might say or do. It is probably to the good that the prime minister was shamed, belatedly, into publicly criticizing the Trump administration’s approach — it was “wrong,” he said — after days of dodging, but only for our own sense of self-respect. His failure to do so until now does not make him, or us, “complicit” in Trump’s policy, since whatever he said would have had no impact on it.

Where we are potentially complicit, rather, is in the matter of those thousands of asylum seekers arriving at the Canada-U.S. border every year whom, notwithstanding our obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, we turn back without a hearing. We are permitted to do so, or have permitted ourselves to do so, by the terms of the 2002 Safe Third Country Agreement, on the premise that, as each country regards the other as a safe haven for refugee claimants, so they should be required to have their case heard in whichever of the two they first arrive in. If the United States under Trump can no longer be regarded as “safe,” many argue, we are obliged, morally and perhaps legally, to suspend the agreement, at least until circumstances change.

The criticism is not new: it has been said since before the deal was even signed. Indeed, the agreement is rooted, not in the similarity of the two countries’ systems, but their differences: Canada’s more liberal, America’s markedly less so. It was we who asked for it, not they, and it was because we feared being unable to handle the tide of asylum seekers flowing north, in the unwelcoming aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, from the United States.

Still, it is one thing to return claimants to the United States of Barack Obama or even George Bush, quite another to submit them to the mercies of the Trump administration. So there may well be a case for suspending the agreement. The courts may force the government to do so in any event, whatever it might prefer.

We should understand, however, what this means. There is one reason why Canada’s treatment of those who arrive at our border unannounced tends to be more liberal than America’s: because we get relatively fewer of them. They have Mexico on their southern border; we have the United States.

But another reason we have so few is because of the Safe Third Country Agreement. In other words, our more liberal system depends in part on being able to offload so many claimants on the less liberal American system. Were we unable to do so — because we suspended the agreement, or because the Americans pulled out of it altogether — we should soon see how liberal we really were.

Even with the agreement in place, we have been dealing with an unprecedented inflow of asylum seekers, driven in part by fear of what Trump had in store for them. Indeed, until now the debate has been over whether to expand the agreement, from a handful of official ports of entry to the whole border, in a (probably futile) bid to prevent asylum seekers from crossing at irregular points.

Suspending the agreement would relieve them of that obligation — but at the cost, most probably, of greatly increasing the number of applicants arriving at the official points. For we would not only have signalled they would not be turned back. We would have publicly declared they were not safe in the United States.

The longer the resulting backlog of cases, the greater the incentive for more to apply: guaranteed a hearing, they would also be permitted to stay in Canada while they waited. Of course, they’d need to first get past the lengthening lineups at the official border crossings — meaning a good many would end up crossing illegally again.

We may still wish to suspend the agreement. But if so, we had better be prepared to spend the money needed to process the increased numbers, or we might soon find our own record for detaining claimants rivalled that of the Americans.

Source: Andrew Coyne: Without the Safe Third Country Agreement, we’d soon see how liberal on refugees we really are

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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