Canada Should Maintain Commitment to Refugee Rights Amid COVID-19: CPJ

By Citizens for Public Justice


Unceded Algonquin Territory [Ottawa, ON]: March 23, 2020 — CPJ was disappointed to hear that the federal government of Canada has reached a reciprocal arrangement with the US to return irregular migrants who attempt to cross anywhere at the Canada-U.S. border. In his Mandate letter, Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair was tasked by the Prime Minister to modernize the Safe Third Country Agreement. CPJ considers this latest agreement to be a step backwards. Though Prime Minister Trudeau said this reciprocal agreement is a temporary measure to protect citizens during the coronavirus pandemic, we fear that it could become permanent.

The reciprocal arrangement came barely 24 hours after the federal government had announced a COVID-19 related travel ban. It bars all foreign nationals from entering Canada except Americans, permanent residents, transit travellers, immediate family members of Canadian citizens, diplomats and aircrews. It further stated that asylum seekers would be quarantined for 14 days – addressing concerns for both refugee protection and public health. This was in tandem with a recently released UNHCR statement pertaining to the legal considerations of key refugee and human rights for asylum seekers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said that all asylum seekers entering Quebec from the US at Roxham Road would be temporarily housed during 14 days of mandatory isolation at the federal government’s expense. A day later, the story changed.

What the new reciprocal arrangement now in place means is that refugee protection at the border has been abandoned. If the arrangement remains permanent, the COVID-19 crisis could have rewritten the Safe Third Country Agreement to the peril of asylum seekers.

“The reciprocal arrangement goes against the guidance of the UNHCR that no COVID-19 measures may result in denying them an effective opportunity to seek asylum or result in refoulement,” says Stephen Kaduuli, CPJ’s refugee rights policy analyst. “Asylum seekers will now be sent back to the US, where they will likely be detained by ICE and possibly be returned to the countries from which they fled persecution. At the bare minimum, the Canadian government should seek assurances that the US will not return the asylum seekers to countries where their lives would be in grave danger.”

COVID-19 has presented the world with extraordinary circumstances. But CPJ believes that we should maintain our commitment to the common good. We should remain committed to our obligation to protect the rights of refugees and other vulnerable people. Turning asylum seekers away at borders is counter to those rights and our international obligations.


For more information, contact Brad Wassink at ac.jpc@darb.

Photo credit: Flickr/Vmenkov

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