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On Refugee Rights Day, Canadian and U.S. Advocates Urge Leaders to Reject Policies that Endanger Refugees

From Ciudad Juárez to the St. Lawrence River, anti-asylum policies result in loss of life

Washington– On Refugee Rights Day, border communities mourn the tragic deaths of families, children, and adults seeking refuge in the United States and Canada. Last week at least 40 people perished in a fire while trapped inside an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Just days later, the bodies of eight migrants, including a toddler, were found in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River, where they were reportedly trying to cross into the United States.


These tragedies have occurred against the backdrop of increasingly draconian policies at both borders that have stranded people fleeing persecution in perilous conditions. In the coming weeks, the Biden administration is poised to replace its deadly Title 42 expulsion policy with an illegal asylum ban, barring most people seeking safety at the U.S.-Mexico border from protection. Last month news broke that the United States and Canada have expanded the application of their Safe Third Country Agreement, allowing officials from both countries to turn away more asylum seekers at the U.S.-Canada border.


These policy changes will force refugees to pursue even more treacherous crossings and put them at risk of deportation to countries where they face persecution and torture. Today refugee advocates from Canada and the United States urge our leaders to reverse course, uphold the right to seek asylum, and protect the lives of people who turn to our countries for safe haven.


“Our leaders continue to fail people fleeing persecution, with deadly consequences,” said Professor Karen Musalo, Director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS). “Rather than stepping up to meet the humanitarian challenges at our borders, both the U.S. and Canadian governments are attempting to outsource their protection responsibilities. The Biden administration’s proposed asylum ban will shut the door to most people seeking safety at our southern border, under the false premise that Mexico and other transit countries are ‘safe’ for refugees. Last week’s tragedy in Ciudad Juárez was a sobering reminder of the dangers people face when we turn them away. The expanded U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement will replicate this dynamic at our northern border, permitting Canada to send more asylum seekers back to the United States. As I testified in Canada in 2018, in relation to a legal challenge to the agreement,  the United States was not a safe country for asylum seekers at that time. Ever-more restrictive policies have made our country even more unsafe. This arrangement will indisputably put refugees at great risk of refoulement — return to the very dangers they fled — in grave violation of international norms. Instead of devising new tactics to evade their refugee obligations, the U.S. and Canadian governments should put humanity first, and ensure that every person seeking safety at our borders has a fair and meaningful opportunity to pursue their claims.”


“As the deaths of migrants continue to mount at the U.S., Canadian, and Mexican borders, our leaders need to put principle before politics, take responsibility, and comply with their obligations under international law,” said Ihsaan Gardee, Director of Mobilization and Communications at Amnesty International Canadian Section (English Speaking). “Just last week we witnessed the heart-breaking deaths of eight migrants, including two children near the traditional Mohawk territory of Akwesasne, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border. This entirely preventable tragedy follows on the heels of the disgraceful announcement, during President Biden’s visit to Canada, to expand the Safe Third Country Agreement and at a time when the Supreme Court of Canada is about to rule on its constitutionality. Unless the agreement is rescinded, people fleeing from persecution and possible death will be left with little choice except to continue to make these dangerous crossing attempts.”


“The expanded Safe Third Country Agreement will increase the risk of refugee claimants and vulnerable migrants taking more and more dangerous paths as they seek safety,” said Aviva Basman, President of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. “Because of the new rules, refugee claimants who do manage to enter Canada undetected will be forced into hiding for 14 days, or face return to the United States, where there is an increased possibility of detention. It is deeply disturbing that Canada would put migrants in this situation, creating an environment in which clandestine smuggling networks will flourish, and increasing the risk that migrants will face physical harm and life-threatening situations trying to seek safety.”


“The expanded U.S.-Canada deal was made without thought about consequences and based upon assumptions that have already proven faulty — and deadly,” said Yael Schacher, Director for the Americas and Europe at Refugees International. “When countries restrict access to asylum, people take more perilous routes to safety and lives are lost. Refugees International calls on the U.S. and Canadian governments to provide safety to, rather than ban and turn away, people seeking refuge.”


“The mounting tragedies at the southern and northern U.S. borders are no accident,” said Katharina Obser, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “They are the result of choices by the leaders who again and again prioritize misguided deterrence policies over access to a safe and dignified and orderly asylum process. The expanded Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada will only exacerbate the obstacles and deepen the tragedies faced by those legally seeking protection. The Women’s Refugee Commission calls on the U.S. and Canadian governments to engage with civil society and implement the smart and humane solutions to welcome with dignity that we know are possible.”


“Doctors for Camp Closure knows that erecting barriers to migrants only causes more migrants to die and suffer, causing trauma to their families and loved ones,” said Kate Sugarman, MD, co-director of Doctors for Camp Closure. “We need to Welcome With Dignity.”


“We know that deterrence-based policies result in continued danger and persecution for migrants fleeing violence. Last week’s fatal tragedies in Ciudad Juárez and Quebec reveal yet again just how devastating the consequences of these policies truly are. And still the U.S. and Canada insist on pursuing harmful approaches that restrict the movement of survivors seeking safety,” said Rachel Sheridan, Senior Litigation Counsel at the Tahirih Justice Center. “The recent expansion of the U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement, the U.S.’s proposed asylum ban, and threats to restart family detention are misguided efforts to punish and prevent people from accessing asylum. We call on our leaders to honor our legal and moral commitments to those fleeing persecution and cooperate in the full restoration of meaningful access to asylum for survivors of gender-based and other persecution across North America.”

“Instead of erecting even more barriers to turn away people seeking refuge, the United States and Canada should uphold refugee law and welcome people seeking asylum from persecution,” said
Eleanor Acer, senior director for Refugee Protection at Human Rights First.  “Bans and bars to asylum endanger human lives and are the opposite of humanitarian leadership.  State efforts to evade asylum lead to disorder, dysfunction and the undermining of refugee law globally.”   







Join the movement and sign our pledge to #WelcomeWithDignity


The #WelcomeWithDignity Campaign for asylum rights is composed of more than 100 organizations committed to transforming the way the United States receives and protects people forced to flee their homes to ensure they are treated humanely and fairly. To learn more and join our campaign visit: