Canada has a duty to uphold the rights of children and suspend the ‘Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement

In the past few weeks, the news has been full of stories of children being detained and separated from their parents at the US border. We have seen hundreds of messages from Americans urging Canadians to not react, or at least to not over-react, to the erratic pronouncements and actions of their President. As John McKay of Colorado put it, “For now, hang in there, try to ignore him, and do not make direct eye contact!” It is good advice. Up to a point.

That point does not extend to standing by and watching the rights and wellbeing of children being abused. The American administration’s current policy of indefinite detention of children and families, and failure to address the needs of children who have been forcibly separated from their families, is an abuse of human rights. Of children’s rights. And while the United States has thus far failed to ratify the UN’s Convention in the Rights of the Child, Canada is a signatory (as are all other countries worldwide).

This means that Canada has a duty to uphold the rights of children, including by enacting and implementing policy that is in the best interests of children.

Canadian policy on this issue, while far from spotless, has much improved in recent years. Children seeking asylum are occasionally detained in Canada, but they are rarely separated. The numbers of detained children has also dropped significantly and must continue to do so until this practice is eliminated.

While we work to improve our own practices affecting children seeking asylum in Canada, we must also ensure we are not complicit in the abuse of children to our south.

The Canada-USA “Safe Third Country Agreement” has been in effect since 2004. It is predicated on an assumption that both Canada and the United States respect and uphold the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, and under this assumption, prohibits the majority of asylum seekers in the United States from seeking protection in Canada and vice-versa. It made sense when we could be relatively sure that fair treatment and due process would be accorded to all comers.

Last week’s Presidential Executive Order addressing family separation achieves one thing: further harming already vulnerable children. As announced, the Executive Order simply replaces family separation with indefinite family detention.

Save the Children has been working with children in difficult circumstances in almost every corner of the world for close to 100 years. We know that separation from parents has significant adverse effects on children’s development and psychological well-being, ultimately resulting in severe, long-lasting and often irreversible harm to children. In Canada, Residential schools and the Sixties Scoop have certainly taught us that.

Similarly, family detention centres have been consistently found unsuitable and injurious for children. In addition, the Executive Order does not address the needs of previously separated children or the need to uphold asylum rights.

The current policy and practice of the US administration not only fails to constitute fair treatment, it is an assault on the rights of completely blameless children and an attack on their wellbeing and their future. It is clear that the United States can no longer be considered “safe” for the purposes of refugee protection.

Public opinion surveys generally, and I think rightly, give the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister high marks for their adept handling of Canada-US relations. They have both indicated, and demonstrated, that while Canada will “avoid direct eye contact” where possible, Canada will not only stand up but go eye to eye where our interests and our values are at stake. This is a flagrant case of our values being at stake. The Prime Minister has said, “this is not the way we do things in Canada.” The logical consequence must be, at the very least, the suspension of the “Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement”.