On July 22, a Federal Court ruling struck down the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), ruling in Canadian Council for Refugees v. Canada that it violated the Charter right to life, liberty and security of the person.

The STCA has been the subject of criticism since its inception in 2002. This agreement between the United States and Canada means that refugees, having landed in the United States, cannot then seek asylum in Canada, under the pretense that the U.S. is already a “safe” haven for them. Any such refugee who tries to enter Canada through an official point of entry is automatically turned over to U.S. authorities and subsequently detained. Those wishing to avoid such a fate are left to try their luck at unofficial border crossings such as Roxham Road in Quebec, on which asylum-seekers risk frostbite in the winter and even death. 

The stories of the applicants make it clear that the United States is anything but safe for refugees. One unnamed family, fleeing sexual violence, extortion and death threats by gang members in El Salvador, was arrested as soon as they arrived in the USA and told that they would be sent back. When they were released from detention, they quite reasonably tried to make a refugee claim in Canada, but were refused under the STCA. A country that denied them refuge could hardly be considered “safe”.  

The second applicant, Ms. Mustefa, arrived in the United States as a child seeking medical treatment, where she ended up staying with family, but without documentation. Not wanting to return to Ethiopia due to the violent oppression of the Oromo people, her ethnic group, and not able to get documentation in the USA, she sought refugee status in Canada. She was denied, and sent back to the U.S. Ms. Mustefa was immediately sent to a men’s maximum security prison, where she was kept in solitary confinement for a week. She described the experience as “terrifying, isolating, and psychologically traumatic.” After being released from solitary, she was detained alongside convicted criminals, fed pork despite telling guards that she could not eat it for religious reasons, and kept in freezing conditions while not being allowed to use a blanket. She said she “felt scared, alone, and confused at all times.” She was released on bail after a month, though while she was in prison she “did not know when [she] would be released, if at all.” Justice McDonald determined that the treatment of Ms. Mustefa was enough to “shock the conscience” and qualify as a “grossly disproportionate” deprivation of liberty and security, contrary to principles of fundamental justice.  

Reda Yassin Al Nahass and her family were the third set of applicants. They were visiting the United States when her husband lost his job with his Saudi Arabian employer, meaning that they could no longer reside in that country. Nor could they return to Syria, where they were citizens, as Ms. Al Nahass had previously been kidnapped, attacked and threatened there. Not wanting to remain in the United States amid the growing xenophobia encouraged by Trump’s “Muslim ban”, the family attempted to cross into Canada via Roxham Road. They were stopped by a Canadian Border Services agent and told they would be arrested if they entered Canada. On returning to the U.S., the family was immediately detained and separated from one another. Ms. Al Nahass was forced to remove her hijab and photographed without it. The family then tried to cross at an official point of entry, and were told that they were ineligible to enter Canada since they were doing so from the U.S. Ms. Al Nahass was able to get hold of a lawyer, who filed an emergency stay of removal. If they had not, they would have been forced to return to a country where Ms. Al Nahass had faced targeted violence and harassment.

These are just three stories of people being met by a cruel and impenetrable system in Canada and the United States. There are countless more like them. In fact, Ms. Mustefa’s testimony was backed up by the affidavits of 10 other anonymous refugee claimants attesting to similarly shocking treatment, indicating that it is standard procedure for U.S. border services. The notion that the United States could be considered a “safe” country for any of these people, simply because they set foot there first, is nothing short of Kafkaesque.  

This is to say nothing of the fact that it is countries like the United States and Canada that create refugees in the first place. To take the countries that the applicants in Canadian Council for Refugees v. Canada were fleeing from as examples: in Syria, the United States has maintained its presence by funding and arming Al-Qaeda related groups. In Ethiopia, the U.S. and Canada both support the country’s program of privatizing state-owned enterprises, which lowers the quality of life for Ethiopians and ratchets up social tensions. In El Salvador, it is well known that the U.S. has funded death squads and maintains its involvement in the country today. Canadian mining interests have also done their share to suppress labour organizing and support right-wing regimes. The forces of imperialism create chaos and misery in other countries, and then refuse to deal with the consequences. 

The Safe Third Country Agreement deserved to be struck down. However, that on its own is not enough to ensure that refugees are treated fairly at the border. Justice Ann McDonald suspended her decision for six months to give the Canadian government time to respond, so that currently the STCA remains in effect and thousands of asylum seekers will continue to be turned away. Rather than responding with a change in policy, the federal government has scandalously decided to appeal the decision and continue to put refugee families in danger of victimization and death. If that appeal fails, they will have another opportunity to appeal, this time to the Supreme Court of Canada. The entire process could take years, while refugees continue to suffer. 

Even if the federal government loses at every level, there is every likelihood that they will replace the STCA with something similar. In October 2018 the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) confirmed that it had set a goal of increasing deportations of refugees and others by up to 35 per cent, amounting to 10,000 people a year—that is, a goal of subjecting 10,000 individuals to the same terror, trauma and confusion as the applicants in this case. This is because it is very useful for the ruling class to have a layer of workers who are terrified that if they step out of line they could lose everything, making them easy to exploit and subject to the worst conditions. This acts as a downward pressure on the labour market, with the added benefit that the bosses can scapegoat immigrant workers to foment divisions within the working class. 

Rather than attacking immigrants and refugees, any rational system would welcome them with open arms. Study after study has shown that immigrants are a net benefit to the economy, as they work hard and contribute far more than they receive in compensation. Moreover, immigration is essential for countries like Canada to maintain its population, as birth rates are below replacement level. Even the cost of processing immigrants is minor when compared to the billions of dollars that the government spends on corporate bailouts and tax cuts every year. But for the capitalists, none of this matters compared to the benefits of keeping a layer of workers particularly weak and the working class as a whole divided.

The only way to permanently secure victory for refugees is to mobilize the one thing that can force the hand of the government: the power of the organized working class. So far the struggle against the STCA has been led by organizations such as the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and the Canadian Council of Churches, who have focused their efforts on the courts. The organizations of the working class have not been involved at all. With the ability to organize millions of workers, the unions and the NDP could take the lead on opposing the STCA. By using their platform and resources to educate workers on why the struggle for refugees is the struggle of the working class, and mobilizing them to demand that the federal government drop the appeal, they could ensure that there are no more stories like those of Ms. Mustefa and her co-applicants.

It is up to the leadership of the unions and the labour movement to take up this fight, and it is in the interests of all workers for them to do so. The capitalists use policies like the STCA to keep refugees vulnerable to exploitation. The very idea that Canada needs to limit the number of refugees it accepts misdirects responsibility for a crumbling system away from the ruling class, and onto the shoulders of some of the most marginalized people. The labour movement must be clear about whose side it is on and who the real enemy is: it must stand for the oppressed and against the bosses. 

And the labour movement must not stop with the STCA. It is in the objective interest of the working class to oppose all border controls. It is not migrants who overburden housing, health care, and other social services, but the fact that the capitalist class refuses to invest in any of this if they can’t turn a profit. The more united the working class is across national, racial, and religious lines, the stronger it is and better able to focus its fire on the true enemy: the capitalists.