Pandemic Borders

COVID-19: Canada locks its gates to asylum seekers

For asylum seekers, the route to a safe home is being all but eliminated.

Claire Ellis
10 April 2020
The customs plaza at the tunnel between Detroit, US and Windsor, Ontario Canada closed. 2 April, 2020
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Picture by Jim West/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved
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Around the globe, states have shuttered their borders in an effort to stop the spread of Covid-19. When Canada announced its border closure on 14 March, over one million citizens and permanent residents rushed back in a matter of days to avoid being stranded abroad. Suddenly, the mark of citizenship had become more precious than ever, a commodity of political belonging key to rejoining loved ones and waiting out the virus behind closed doors.

Asylum seekers have not been so fortunate. At first, the Canadian government had announced a plan to introduce a 14-day mandatory isolation period for asylum seekers arriving irregularly into Canada from the United States. Several days later, the tone had quickly shifted, with Trudeau declaring during a public address that asylum seekers who attempt to cross the Canada-US border to make claims for asylum would be turned back. It has since been reported that the United States is considering the return of asylum seekers to their country of origin. This would be a violation of nonrefoulement, a cornerstone of the Refugee Convention that prevents states from returning asylum seekers to places of persecution.

Governments worldwide have had to make difficult decisions to address the growing number of covid-19 cases that are threatening lives and wreaking havoc on our healthcare systems and economies. Cancellations and closures have been made in all facets of life. Yet, eliminating the right to seek asylum will have severe implications for those in need of safe ground. What’s more, the Canadian government has already made important exemptions to the border closure under the definition of essential travel, allowing the entry of migrants such as temporary foreign workers, international students, and permanent resident applicants with previously approved applications. If critical health precautions can be put in place to ensure the safe entry of citizens and particular migrant groups - why not include asylum seekers, who have nowhere else to go?

If critical health precautions can be put in place to ensure the safe entry of citizens and particular migrant groups - why not include asylum seekers?

“What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home, but the impossibility of finding a new one”, wrote Hannah Arendt on the calamity facing people on the move in a world of bordered territories. Today, many of us are currently holed up in our homes attempting to weather the storm through unending Zoom calls, stress baking, and at-home exercise videos, checking the news every hour with dread as we fear for our loved ones most susceptible to the disease. But this is a luxury. Not everyone has a home, even within our own borders, and for asylum seekers, the route to a safe home is being all but eliminated.

The impacts of the asylum suspension may well extend beyond the current public health measures in place due to the pandemic. In recent years, the Canadian government has been making moves to fortify the border against irregular border crossing and prevent so-called ‘asylum-shopping’, where an individual passes through more than one country to make claims for asylum. This time last year, Ministers were in discussions with officials in the United States to strengthen the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, a bilateral agreement which restricts asylum seekers from making claims for protection in Canada if they are living in or pass through the US, deemed a safe country for refugees. But the agreement is only in effect at official ports of entry, driving asylum seekers to cross irregularly at unofficial border points in order to claim asylum. In the wake of increasingly restrictive policy reforms and immigration enforcement tactics by the Trump administration, irregular border crossings have increased.

In the same year, Canada introduced new policy that bars asylum seekers from making claims in Canada if they have previously made a claim in a country with which Canada has an information-sharing agreement. These developments infringe on the right to seek asylum in Canada and foster an increasing reliance on information-sharing in the migration and border policy landscape that may have serious human rights implications.

Suspending the asylum system and turning people back at the border is an unnecessary step in the fight against covid-19. In many nations, including Canada, the virus is now spreading at the community level, as governments continue to ramp up measures of physical distancing, protective equipment, and testing. Asylum seekers should be included in national response plans, not locked out.

The cracks of the asylum regime are revealed when states decide to retract access to domestic refugee protection

There are other options. Sweden, for example, has closed all borders yet kept its asylum system intact. Portugal has granted all migrants and asylum seekers full citizenship rights to ensure proper access to healthcare. UNHCR launched an appeal to address the effects of covid-19 on refugees worldwide, prioritizing the need for asylum seekers to be included in state response plans addressing the pandemic.

Despite commitments to international law that enshrines the rights of asylum seekers, the cracks of the asylum regime are revealed when states decide to retract access to domestic refugee protection. As a signatory of the UNHCR Refugee Convention, Canada has obligations to non-citizens who are entitled to make a refugee claim for protection that would allow them to remain in Canada. But the right to seek asylum has always been susceptible to the aims of domestic state sovereignty. In the time of Covid-19, states need to be proactive in including asylum seekers in policy responses that address the current pandemic.

Stories of solidarity across local communities and nations have provided a beacon of hope amidst the fear and uncertainty that the pandemic has brought us. Let the virus show us not the limits of our communities as instructed by borders, but a commitment to leaving no one behind.

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