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Rights + Justice

Four Reasons to Keep Allowing Refugees into Canada

Why shutting out asylum seekers is wrong and won’t make us safer.

Paula Ethans 23 Mar

Paula Ethans is a human rights lawyer who has been called to the bar in Ontario.

On Friday morning, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that the government would restrict the movement of people across our borders as an unprecedented measure to stop the spread of COVID-19. Starting this Wednesday, asylum seekers who cross the border at unofficial ports of entry — known as irregular migrants — will be arrested and handed over to American authorities.

This is a marked departure from the government’s previous position. Just a day earlier, the government promised that it would continue to allow people to cross into Canada, ensuring they screen and isolate anyone who crossed the border for two weeks in federal facilities.

While it’s important to acknowledge that we are facing a pandemic, and every decision is difficult and crucial, closing the border to irregular migrants is not the answer. This policy is ineffective, immoral and likely illegal.

1. The new policy is ineffective

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said that while asylum seekers do not represent a higher public health risk, the efforts required to monitor and isolate them would be difficult during these trying times.

Indeed, welcoming and monitoring migrants while in quarantine requires resources, but it will also require many resources to monitor the closed border and co-ordinate the return of these migrants with the U.S. How many resources will we actually free up by this policy?

Most importantly, this won’t stop the spread of COVID-19.

The World Health Organization hasn’t recommended closing borders to curb COVID-19. Instead, it has instructed countries to ensure appropriate screening measures are in place at ports of entry and to promote thorough hygiene practices and social distancing.

If Canada was to follow the advice of WHO we would conduct an individualized assessment of every person entering the country, move them to a temporary shelter facility, and be asked to self-isolate. This process would be just as, or more, stringent than those in place right now for Canadian and American citizens. And it’s what Trudeau had previously announced Canada would do.

Furthermore, this policy won’t stop migrants from making their way into Canada. As we’ve seen time and time again in Europe, closing the border doesn’t stop migration, it just makes it more dangerous. Migrants won’t abandon their hopes of reaching safety simply because a government tells them to. Rather, they will be pushed to take clandestine routes into Canada.

In this new policy, migrants who make it into Canada will not be quarantined for 14 days, increasing the risk of spreading the virus. Once they are in Canada, they’ll be forced to live underground and will be too afraid to seek medical attention if sick, further exacerbating the spread.

If anything, closing known border crossing points like Roxham Road will put the health of Canadians at greater risk.

We also can’t forget, COVID-19 isn’t happening in a vacuum. This is a global pandemic, and pushing migrants out of Canada won’t stop COVID-19, it will just move it somewhere else. Migrants will be left to wander through the U.S., trying to find safety, and potentially spreading the virus throughout communities.

European Union sources have said that refusing entry to anyone is not considered an appropriate preventive measure, because “the virus would spread further since those potential patients would keep moving in the region without being treated.” European Union experts are instead urging countries to have systematic checks for all arrivals.

Back in January, at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, WHO warned that closing the borders could actually spread the virus more quickly. WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said that by closing official border crossings, countries can “lose track of people and cannot monitor (their movement) anymore.”

2. The new policy is immoral

The government of Canada is capitalizing on the chaos of COVID-19 to push through a policy that oppresses the most vulnerable. It is taking advantage of a global pandemic to pander to xenophobic and racist fears.

Sealing the border to irregular migrants reaffirms that ours is a classist society, partially determined by citizenship status. This policy implicitly states that citizens deserve the safety and comfort of Canada, but migrants do not.

Minister Blair characterized turning away migrants as a step toward closing the border for all but “essential” travel. What travel is more “essential” than seeking refuge?

It’s worth noting that the border closure exempts international students and temporary foreign workers and Canada is still allowing American citizens into Canada. These many exceptions illustrate that the border closure isn’t about blocking non-Canadian citizens, but seizing this moment of panic to turn our backs on irregular migrants, a plan the government has long been musing.

3. The new policy is likely illegal

Aside from this policy being immoral, there’s a good chance that the new policy is illegal, and human rights and refugee groups in Canada have been quick to condemn it.

In its press release, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers said, the new policy “is unnecessary and unjustified, and it puts refugees at risk.”

Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, condemns closing the border, noting that “refugees and migrants face considerable risks in the face of the pandemic and are frequently demonized and ostracized as public health threats.” Neve said that “turning refugee claimants over to U.S. border control officials at a time like this violates international law and is just plain cruel.”

Under international law and the 1951 Refugee Convention, Canada has an obligation to allow asylum seekers to launch a refugee claim and have their case heard. By automatically returning all irregular migrants to the U.S., we are ignoring international law and shirking our obligations.

In addition, human rights organizations have fervently opposed the Safe Third Country Agreement for decades now, arguing that the U.S. is not a safe place for refugees.

In the U.S., asylum seekers are prevented from making a refugee claim if they wait more than one year, are often denied access to counsel, and are detained while their claims are assessed. In recent years, the situation has only worsened. Trump has held migrant children in cages, implemented the Muslim ban, housed migrants in tent cities, barred asylum claims based on domestic violence and gang violence, and ripped babies from mothers' arms.

Canada may also be violating its obligations of non-refoulement — which stipulates that countries cannot return asylum seekers to a country where they would risk persecution — by sending migrants back to the U.S.

There is a very real possibility that the U.S. will send migrants back to countries where they could face persecution. The Trump administration has brokered agreements with El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — countries from which countless refugees flee — mandating migrants to apply for refugee protection in those countries on their journey to the U.S. The U.S. already has an established practice of sending migrants back to Guatemala, where Indigenous people and women, in particular, face extreme rates of violence. All of this violates the international obligations to not return asylum seekers to persecution, and Canada will now be complicit in these “chain pushbacks.”

Given these bilateral agreements, and the fact that the U.S. government is still conducting raids and deporting people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada cannot argue that sending migrants back to the U.S. is in line with our legal obligations.

The government has emphasized that this measure will only remain in place during the COVID-19 crisis, but we should take this with a very large grain of salt. The Safe Third Country Agreement was created during the aftermath of 9/11, when it may have seemed reasonable. But the panic of 9/11 is long gone, and the agreement still remains. It’s very likely that this policy will also stay in place permanently. As Justin Mohammed from Amnesty International Canada said, “History demonstrates that when we see the rollback of certain human rights, the unwinding of that action has been very difficult.”

4. We’re all in this together

As Canada and other countries around the world close their borders in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, IOM reminds us that, “it is critical that such measures be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner, in line with international law, and prioritizing the protection of the most vulnerable.”

We are in unchartered territory. It’s understandable that Canada wants to do everything it can to protect its country from a deadly virus, but it doesn’t have to be one or the other: we can protect Canadian health while at the same time upholding human rights and protecting asylum seekers.

As always with human rights, it’s a balancing act. As we make difficult decisions to combat this pandemic, we cannot lightly compromise human rights and must account for every competing factor. Just as we balance the freedoms of assembly, association and religion of Canadian citizens against their right to life and health, we must also balance the right to life, liberty, and security of the person of irregular migrants.

As Eric Paulsen has written, we must implement public health measures “in a way that is justifiable in line with international standards. Any limitations on our rights must be necessary, proportionate and in the pursuit of a legitimate aim.”

Canadian citizens are scared, but so are migrants. Migrants face the same health threats from COVID-19 as citizens.

The world is at war, but for the first time in history, the entire world is fighting a common enemy. Let’s use this moment to embrace unity and care for one another.  [Tyee]

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