In these extraordinary times, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) is deeply concerned by this morning’s announcement barring refugees at Canada-US border.
The government had earlier announced a sensible plan to ensure safe housing and quarantine for refugees crossing in to Canada during the COVID-19 crisis. That plan worked for public health and for refugee protection, and was in keeping with the United Nations refugee agency’s directives on respecting human rights while fighting the pandemic.[i] The vast majority of refugees were crossing at a specific location, and this ensured orderly processing into the refugee system, and fulsome application of public health measures.
The plan announced this morning is unnecessary and unjustified, and it puts refugees at risk. We simply did not have to choose between tackling the pandemic and upholding human rights: we can and should do both.
The federal government has provided welcome leadership in this crisis. Our leaders have worked to ensure we tackle the COVID-19 crisis by taking care of each other. Today’s announcement strays from that commitment. We urge the Prime Minister to reconsider.
If this policy is maintained, even in the short term, the federal government must secure firm assurances that refugee claimants who are turned back at the border and into ICE custody, are not returned to their country of persecution, nor placed into immigration detention – especially given the enhanced risk of COVID-19 in that country’s overcrowded detention centres. Canada should also commit that such claimants will be able to return to the border after the crisis is over, without prejudice to their ability to seek refugee protection in this country.
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[i] The UNHCR just published Key Legal Considerations on access to territory for persons in need of international protection in the context of the COVID-19 response. Central provisions include:
5. States are entitled to take measures to ascertain and manage risks to public health, including risks that could arise in connection with non-nationals arriving at their border. Such measures must be non-discriminatory as well as necessary, proportionate and reasonable to the aim of protecting public health. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic States have, or are considering putting in place public health measures such as the screening of travellers on arrival and the use of quarantine for persons who have been identified as suffering from the disease or who may have been exposed to the virus. Such efforts, multilateral or national, are directed at containing this infectious disease and preventing its spread.
6. However, imposing a blanket measure to preclude the admission of refugees or asylum-seekers, or of those of a particular nationality or nationalities, without evidence of a health risk and without measures to protect against refoulement, would be discriminatory and would not meet international standards, in particular as linked to the principle of non- refoulement. In case health risks are identified in the case of individual or a group of refugees or asylum-seekers, other measures could be taken, such as testing and/or quarantine, which would enable authorities to manage the arrival of asylum-seekers in a safe manner, while respecting the principle of non-refoulement. Denial of access to territory without safeguards to protect against refoulement cannot be justified on the grounds of any health risk.