What is the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA)?
The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States (U.S.) is part of the U.S.–Canada Smart Border Action Plan about who is allowed to cross the U.S.-Canada border to seek asylum.
STCA was signed in December 2002 and came into effect in December 2004. Both countries signed an Additional Protocol to expand the STCA, which entered into force on March 25, 2023.
Under the Agreement, refugee claimants must make a claim in the first of the two countries they arrive in unless they qualify for an exception.
Refugees are people who flee their countries because of a well-founded fear of persecution. Once refugees arrive in another country and seek asylum, international law protects them from being sent back to face serious threats.
Not all asylum claims are successful. Some asylum seekers may not meet the legal definition of a refugee. In other cases, there are errors or unfairness in a country's assessment of the asylum claim. For a variety of reasons, some asylum seekers pass through several countries and apply in more than one.
What is a Safe Third Country?
A safe third country is a country, other than Canada and the country of alleged persecution, where an individual may make a claim for refugee protection. The U.S. is the only country designated as a safe third country by Canada under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA).
The Agreement does not apply to U.S. citizens or habitual residents of the U.S. who are not citizens of any country (“stateless persons”).
As a result of the STCA, most people who come to Canada via the U.S. (either at a formal land port of entry or irregularly between formal ports of entry) cannot claim asylum in Canada. People will only be allowed to enter Canada if they meet one of the exceptions in the agreement.
However, beginning in 2017, more asylum seekers began crossing the border into Canada through unofficial border crossings, avoiding the application of the STCA and allowing them to make an asylum claim.
Where does the STCA apply?
The STCA applies to refugee claimants seeking to enter Canada from the U.S.:
- at Canada-U.S. land border crossings
- after crossing between ports of entry and making a claim for refugee protection less than 14 days after the day of entry into Canada
- by train, or
- at airports, only if the person seeking refugee protection in Canada has been refused refugee status in the U.S. and is in transit through Canada after being deported from the U.S.
Exceptions to the Agreement
There are four exceptions:
- Family member exceptions
- Unaccompanied minors exception
- Document holder exceptions
- Public interest exceptions
Even if they qualify for one of these exceptions, refugee claimants must still meet all other eligibility criteria (reasons of security, violation of human or international rights, or serious criminality) of Canada’s immigration legislation.
Note: recognized family members:
- spouse or same-sex spouse
- common-law partner
- father or mother or legal guardian
- child or grandchild
- sister or brother
- grandfather or grandmother
- uncle or aunt
- nephew or niece
- cousins are not eligible to be anchor relatives.
What does the STCA do?
The key point of the STCA is that it prevents people from claiming asylum in Canada if they enter an official land border crossing with the U.S. The idea is that asylum seekers should make their claim in the first safe country they can.
Because some people might not consider the U.S. as a safe country, and because the procedures for assessing asylum claims differ, the legality of the STCA is in question.
People who have entered Canada (at any place along the border) and do NOT qualify for an exception under the STCA will be given an exclusion order from Canada and returned to the U.S. the same day. Canadian authorities will notify U.S. authorities at the US port of entry.
People will not be able to re-enter Canada for one year and they will NEVER be allowed to make another asylum claim in Canada. They will have 15 days to appeal this decision.
What would suspending the STCA do?
Some organizations, such as the Canadian Council for Refugees, Refugee 613 and Bridges Not Borders, are calling for the suspension of the STCA so that Canada would evaluate asylum claims independently of U.S. decisions.
Suspending the STCA would mean people looking to claim asylum at official land ports of entry between Canada and the United States could make their claims in Canada.
For more information
- Claiming refugee protection, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB)
- The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (ratified by Canada)
- UNHCR Monitoring Report: Canada - United States “Safe Third Country” Agreement, released in June 2006, p. 6–7.
- Overview of the Canada–United States Safe Third Country Agreement, Library of Parliament, 2021-01-15
- What is Refugee Rights Day?, an article from WelcomeOntario.