Statement for Refugee Rights Day 2021

By Stephen Kaduuli

Citizens for Public Justice joins people across Canada in celebrating Refugee Rights Day on Sunday, April 4. This is the second Refugee Rights Day of the pandemic. On this day in 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) rendered a monumentally historic decision pertaining to the rights of refugees in response to Singh v. Minister of Employment and Immigration, also simply known as “the Singh decision.”

Between 1977 and 1981, six Indian citizens and a Guyanese citizen of Indian heritage, all called Singh, made separate refugee claims in Canada. As per the Immigration Act of the time, applicants for refugee status simply filed legal claims and documentation and were not given an opportunity for oral hearings.

Their applications were all rejected by the Immigration Appeal Board for lacking credibility for refugee status. The government also argued that they were not entitled to the principles of fundamental justice flowing from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because had no status in the country.

Their lawyers argued that this procedure violated their clients’ rights as established by Section 7 of the Charter which reads that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

They all appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC). Due to the similarities of their legal issues, all seven were dealt with in a single case, thus dubbed Singh case. And they won! The SCC declared that the legal guarantees of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms apply to “everyone” physically present in Canada, including foreign asylum seekers. This then entitled them to oral hearings.

Refugees in Immigration Holding Centres

Currently, refugees detained at “immigration holding centres” operated by the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA) are at great risk during due to the coronavirus pandemic. Detention is both cruel and dangerous during a pandemic and detainees must feel like sitting ducks waiting to catch COVID-19. There have been a number of hunger strikes in some detention facilities with the latest being in February after five detainees contracted COVID-19.

Initially, removals from Canada were suspended due to the pandemic. However, in November 2020, CBSA announced that it was lifting the moratorium on deportations and 12,122 people were removed from Canada before the end of the year. CPJ believes that it is unconscionable to deport people during a pandemic when travel restrictions still prevail around the globe. If they contracted the virus while in detention, deporting people from such circumstances is tantamount to exporting the virus to other countries.

Slamming the Door on Asylum Seekers

During the coronavirus pandemic, countries have become more inward looking as they protect the health of their citizens. To protect the health of Canadians, the federal government imposed travel restrictions blocking all but “essential” travel between the US and Canada. Canada now has a temporary reciprocal arrangement with the US to return irregular migrants who attempt to cross anywhere along the border. This arrangement has major implications for the Safe Third Country Agreement between the two countries and the rights of asylum seekers. To turn away asylum seekers is to turn back the most vulnerable in this global time of need. Blocking asylum seekers from crossing the border may put their lives at risk.

Immigration Levels Plan

The pandemic has disrupted the entire refugee resettlement sector globally and slowed the flow of refugee arrivals to Canada to a trickle. Overall, due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, Canada welcomed only 184,000 of the targeted 301,000 newcomers. According to the 2020 immigration levels plan, Canada had targeted to welcome 49,700 refugees and protected persons but ended up welcoming less than half that number. In the 2021-2023 immigration levels plan, it plans to admit 401,000 newcomers including 59,500 refugees and protected persons in 2021. It is uncertain how these targets will be achieved with the pandemic travel restrictions still in place.

Canada's Immigration Levels (targets and actuals) for 2018 - 2021

Processing of Asylum Claims

Between 2017 and March 2020, 58,255 asylum claims were made by irregular border crossers. In 2020, 23,910 asylum claims were processed by the CBSA and IRCC. According to the latest figures from the Immigration and Refugee Board, only 28,644 of all these cases have been heard so far – meaning there is a big backlog.

To improve the possibility of meeting immigration plans targets, Canada should offer more permanent residence pathways to foreign nationals who are already in the country. One of the ways of doing this would be by speeding up hearings of the unheard asylum claims. It is good that the government is processing the regularization of the status of around 1,000 refugee claimants for their work in health care during the COVID-19 pandemic by granting them permanent residency status.

As we mark the 36th year of the historic Singh decision, CPJ believes that Canada needs to step up for refugees. Especially during the pandemic, we should care for vulnerable refugees and ensure that their rights are respected. We can simultaneously protect the health of Canadians while safeguarding the rights of refugees.

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