The BCCLA is deeply disturbed and shocked at the federal government’s announcement barring refugees at the Canada-US border. This is an unprecedented, unnecessary and unjustified measure that places refugees’ lives and public health at risk.
We have written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Government of Canada to oppose the closing of the Canada-US land border to refugees. We are strongly urging Prime Minister Trudeau and the Government of Canada to reverse section 4(1) of their Order-in-Council, which now prohibits asylum-seekers arriving from the US to enter Canada for the purposes of refugee protection.
The prohibition is in violation of our legal obligations and international commitments. The Federal Court of Canada has already found that is unreasonable to conclude that the US complies with its obligations not to return refugees to persecution or torture. The federal government has no assurances that refugees returned from the Canada-US border into the US will not be taken into US Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody, or that they will not be returned to the country where they face persecution or torture. Returning refugees to the US would violate Canada’s legal obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, Convention against Torture, and protected rights under section 7 and section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has published key legal considerations on refugees in the context of the COVID-19 response, which stipulate that imposing a blanket measure to preclude the admission of refugees without evidence of a health risk and without measures to protect against refoulement would be discriminatory and would not meet international standards.
The prohibition on refugee arrivals also violates human rights. The unfair scapegoating and targeting of refugees as potential carriers of COVID-19 escalates anti-refugee sentiment and racist xenophobia. Refugees are already a vulnerable population, and are frequently stigmatized and scapegoated during times of global upheaval and crisis. As Amnesty International details, “Turning refugee claimants away—including as a result of the decision to shut down the Canada/US border—exposes refugees, who face increased hardship, danger and ostracization worldwide related to this pandemic, to serious human rights violations in other countries, including inhumane immigration detention conditions and the risk of refoulement to torture and other human rights abuses.”
Further, the prohibition on refugee arrivals at the Canada-US border is not necessary to preserve public health. The World Health Organization emphasizes public health screening measures and social distancing, and according to their latest COVID-19 recommendations, “Evidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions.”
As we know already with the implementation of the Safe Third Country Agreement with the US, the criminalization of legal migration only increases irregular migration, which is more dangerous and sometimes deadly. In the context of the current pandemic, an increase in irregular crossings would likely increase the potential for COVID-19 transmission with refugees forced to cross irregularly having no information or resources about self-isolation, quarantine, social distancing, or testing procedures. Lifting the prohibition on refugee arrivals ensures refugees can arrive safely, and can subsequently be housed and remain in quarantine for 14-days during the COVID-19 crisis, as required for all other travelers.
Refugees have a right to safety. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic is a global one; we can’t displace the pandemic beyond our borders. Respecting refugee rights and protecting public health both require a robust response where everyone is safe from persecution and has appropriate health protections.
We strongly urge the Government of Canada to uphold our international and legal obligations and reverse the cruel, unjustified, and unnecessary turn-backs of refugees at the border. No one should be left behind.