HALIFAX, N.S. — The federal government's decision to deny asylum seekers and refugee claimants entry to Canada from the U.S. to limit the spread of COVID-19 is inhumane and illegal, experts say.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced recently that individuals entering Canada from the U.S. to make an asylum claim will be sent back to the U.S., noting the new measures are “temporary” but are part of a necessary response to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.
Asylum seekers were already denied entry to Canada from the U.S. at official border points under the Safe Third Country Agreement, but migrants have continued to make their way by foot at Roxham Road in Quebec and other irregular entry points. The new measures prevent such migrants from continuing to cross over into Canada and to eventually claim refugee status.
Halifax Refugee Clinic executive director Julie Chamagne said asylum seekers and refugees are “some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the world” and that denying their entry to Canada is “inhumane.”
“It is very saddening. I think that it's unnecessary, even in the extenuating circumstances, and it's in contravention of international legal obligations that we have, of humanitarian moral obligations that we have, towards people fleeing persecution,” said Chamagne.
Of the 75 claims the Halifax Refugee Clinic handled over the last year, 41 claims were from clients who had crossed the Canada-U.S. border either at Roxham Road in Quebec or another entry point, according to Chamagne.
In one of those cases, she said a woman and her two children who had precarious status in the U.S. and were "fearing retribution from armed militias" in their country of origin crossed over into Canada through Roxham Road and were able to apply for and gain refugee status this January.
Chamagne said that the refugee family is now "healthy and safe" in Halifax, but she's worried other asylum seekers will not be able to find a similar safe haven.
“To think that there are people like her and like many of our clients, who are not going to be able to access protection, is really heartbreaking,” she said.
Lee Cohen, an immigration lawyer in Halifax, similarly denounced the federal government's decision. He said refugees should be treated no differently at the border than others who are coming to Canada.
“These are people who are running to save their lives. These are people who are trying to escape situations of peril in their countries of origin and wanting to come to Canada for safety,” he said.
Cohen said turning asylum seekers back at the Canadian border is especially a matter of concern because it's uncertain if the U.S. government will have these migrants returned back to their countries of origin, potentially putting them at risk of persecution or torture, which is in violation of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
“The decision to refuse admission to people entering Canada through regular or irregular borders to claim refugee status who are being turned back to the United States is an illegal act by the Canadian government,” said Cohen.
“It shouldn't be permitted and it should be stopped immediately.”
The federal government's decision also perpetuates a “really damaging rhetoric” and “xenophobic stigmas” about migrants and refugees, Chamagne said.
“... it really does feed into these stigmas that already exist about migrants and certainly asylum seekers, people who are engaged in forced migration, people who have to flee,” she said.
As Canadians are now “very alert to the need to be protective of ourselves and others” due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Cohen said that sentiment should be extended to refugees.
“We have this particularly vulnerable group who are very vulnerable in the United States wanting to come to Canada and I think we should be as alert to their needs as we are to our own.”
In the meantime, Cohen said immigration lawyers like himself, along with refugees and immigrants, are bracing to see what the future holds for immigration law in Canada amid the pandemic.
“The whole landscape for immigration law — and I include in that refugee law — is being shaken at its roots, by how the Canadian government is addressing the whole (COVID-19) virus. I believe that with each passing day, as more information is learned by the federal government about the virus, rules are going to keep changing.”
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada did not respond to questions for this article by deadline.
Noushin Ziafati is a local journalism initiative reporter, a position funded by the federal government.