05/01/2018 17:16 EDT | Updated 05/01/2018 17:26 EDT

Safe Third Country Agreement: Ralph Goodale Says Canada Talking With U.S. About Re-Opening Deal

Ralph Goodale called the discussions "exploratory."

Chris Young/Cp
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale addresses the media during a press briefing in Toronto on April 23, 2018.

OTTAWA — Canada is in "exploratory" talks with the United States to re-open the Safe Third Country Agreement, which allows both countries to turn back asylum seekers at border crossings, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Tuesday as he dismissed reports that the Liberals want the agreement to encompass the entire border.

The aim would be to stem the flow of refugee claimants, who have been coming into Canada from the U.S. in growing numbers over the last year.

"It's a discussion we're having with the Americans about the various techniques that could be pursued on both sides of the border to ensure security and integrity," Goodale said as he left the weekly cabinet meeting.

"But this is very exploratory at the moment, scoping issues and potential solutions."

Last year, many of the asylum seekers were from Haiti and left the United States over fears of being deported as President Donald Trump threatened to end a temporary residency program. In more recent months, new arrivals have increased dramatically, with many coming from Nigeria after spending only short periods of time in the U.S. before boarding buses destined for the border.

Manitoba and Quebec have been affected the most by the influx.

There have been reports this week that Canada wants the agreement rewritten to apply to the entire border.

But that kind of expansion would not be in Canada's interests and could actually pose safety issues, said Goodale.

"That ... would increase insecurity at the border and make the crossing issues less safe," he said.

Both Goodale and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen added that Canada had not yet started formal talks with the Trump administration about reducing the flow of people across the border.

While the government must ensure the border is secure, Canada will also remain compassionate when it comes to the treatment of refugee claimants, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons.

"Being compassionate and welcoming is one of the great strengths of Canada," Trudeau said.

"But we also know that applying the rules and the laws around our immigration system is essential for fairness, but it's also essential to ensure continued support for immigration and refugees."

Chris Wattie / Reuters
A Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer looks on as a woman carrying a child waits to cross the border into Canada in Champlain, New York, U.S., on Feb. 14, 2018.

Under the Safe Third Country agreement, which took effect in December 2004, Canada and the U.S. recognize each other as safe places for refugee claimants to seek protection.

It means Canada can turn back potential refugees at the Canada-U.S. border on the basis they must pursue their claims in the U.S., the country where they first arrived.

Critics have fought the agreement, arguing the U.S. is not always a safe country for people fleeing persecution.

But the Opposition Conservatives have urged the Trudeau government to close a loophole in the agreement that has allowed asylum claimants to cross into Canada away from marked border points and called the latest discussions with the U.S. administration "too little, too late."

"Not only are these discussions taking place too late, the Trudeau government has failed to be transparent," immigration critic Michelle Rempel said in a statement.

She noted that Hussen has stated since last fall and as recently as March 19 that the government had not spoken to the United States about renegotiating the agreement.

"This is in direct contradiction to today's reports that claim discussions began last September," she said.