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A Canadian court considers whether the U.S is a safe place for asylum-seekers

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Is America a safe place for asylum-seekers? That's a question Canada's highest court is currently considering. Advocates there are challenging a bilateral agreement on asylum-seekers, as Emma Jacobs reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) The United States is not safe for refugees.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: As government lawyers presented their case inside the Supreme Court in Ottawa yesterday, supporters of the legal challenge gathered outside a Toronto courthouse. At stake - the future of the U.S.-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement. In effect since 2004, it says asylum-seekers who make it to either country need to apply for asylum where they arrived first. Immigrant advocate Diana Gallego criticized the Canadian government for continuing to defend the agreement under which Canada turns asylum-seekers back to the United States.

DIANA GALLEGO: United States, even with this new president, is not safe country for refugees.

JACOBS: The treaty is about both countries meeting their obligations under international refugee law.

JULIA SANDE: People are placed in solitary confinement.

JACOBS: Julia Sande says some of those being turned back are being detained and incarcerated in the U.S. in very poor circumstances. She's a lawyer with Amnesty International, one of the parties challenging the agreement.

SANDE: They're held in really inhumane conditions, subjected to staggering rates of sexual violence, given religiously inappropriate food.

JACOBS: Sande says that the U.S. asylum system is more restrictive, and people who would be eligible for protection in Canada can be rejected and deported.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the idea the U.S. is not a safe third country for refugee claimants. In court, the government's lawyers insisted that Canada has safeguards for people who face exceptional threats. There is no timeline for a ruling, but immigrant advocates on both sides of the border will be watching closely.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.