Is the US a safe country for refugees?

It’s no surprise that many of Canada’s legal academics have expressed concerns over a US executive order which effectively banned US entry for a term of at least 90 days to citizens of a number of predominantly Muslim countries. While the order’s operation was suspended by a Seattle US District Judge on February 3—a decision which was upheld by a federal Appeals court on February 9—many have said that the battle is not over.

Assistant Professor Efrat Arbel has been among the voices strongly calling for the Canadian government to respond to the ban by taking measures that include suspending the effect of the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The Safe Third Country Agreement generally requires that refugee claimants must make their claim in whichever country (Canada or the US) they arrive in first (though some exceptions do apply). The idea underlying this is that refugee claims should be made as soon as the claimant reaches a “safe” country.

However Professor Arbel, recently quoted in a Vice news article, has said that Canada should “re-evaluate whether we can adequately consider the United States to be a safe country for refugees”.

Her belief that the US cannot be considered a safe country for refugees has led to her involvement in drafting an open letter (along with four other law professors from Queen’s, York, and the universities of Toronto and Victoria) to Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.

The letter, dated January 31, 2017, calls on the Canadian government to “immediately suspend directing back refugee claimants at the Canada-US border under the Safe Third Country Agreement.” It also says that in addition to the ban itself being problematic, the enforcement at the border has been “chaotic, inconsistent and arbitrary” and has exposed refugees to additional risks.

The letter has been signed by more than 200 law professors across Canada, including 17 current and former faculty members of the Allard School of Law, among them Dean Catherine Dauvergne.

Dean Dauvergne was also recently quoted in a Global news story about the ban's impact on about 350 UBC students, and 80 faculty who are from affected countries. Dean Dauvergne says that the Canadian government should extend permission to remain “for as long as it takes to clarify” the status of affected individuals.

Allard Law students have also gotten involved by participating in a nationwide law student Research-a-thon to crowdsource a legal challenge against the Safe Third Country Agreement. Started by students at the McGill University Faculty of Law, the initiative spread within a matter of days to 22 schools, including every law school in Canada.

In addition to the research undertaken, the mission of the initiative included raising money for the Canadian Council for Refugees to support the legal challenge, and demonstrating that Canada's future lawyers do not support the US executive order or its effects on the vulnerable.

The organizers reported on their twitter account that there were 838 student participants researching a number of legal issues during the February 4 initiative. The associated fundraising page for the Canadian Council for Refugees raised over $7,800.

In the broader UBC community, President Santa Ono released a statement on January 29, announcing the establishment of a task force charged with determining how the University can assist individuals affected by the ban, including “UBC students, faculty and staff, as well as other scholars in Canada, the U.S., and around the world.”

The statement also says that actions restricting “movement based on a person’s nationality or birthplace go against our values as a university”, and that the task force will work with government and other agencies across Canada to respond.

A January 31 update on the Presidential task force listed a number of resources for UBC community members who might be impacted by the travel restrictions.

Less formally, President Ono has also expressed support on twitter:

UBC will work with British Columbia & Canada to reaffirm our steadfast support of the best & brightest, regardless of their national origin

— Santa J. Ono (@ubcprez) January 29, 2017

Over the course of modern history, one thing is clear: immigration enriches and builds nations bringing exceptional people into the country

— Santa J. Ono (@ubcprez) January 29, 2017

As a Canadian university, UBC welcomes faculty, students & staff regardless of faith. Diversity in every sense of the word strengthens us

— Santa J. Ono (@ubcprez) January 28, 2017