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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic. Screenshot

Asylum seekers deserve better, say advocates

  • March 26, 2020

Denying refugee claimants entry to Canada at the United States border during the COVID-19 pandemic is dangerous, immoral and legally dubious, says a Catholic law professor and other refugee advocates.

“Is fleeing for one’s life not essential travel?” asked Alexander Vernon, a professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. 

“If we have health concerns, do we not have the capacity to quarantine incoming people for a medically appropriate period of time? I think this reaction is the wrong reaction and I hope it is rethought.”

Vernon is a Canadian who has led legal clinics at the Quebec border crossing where, joined by his students, he helps asylum seekers navigate Canada’s refugee system.

A new agreement with the U.S. that came into force at midnight March 20 will deny asylum seekers entry for 30 days with the possibility of an extension beyond the initial period. Previously, asylum seekers at unofficial border crossings such as the Roxham Road checkpoint in Quebec could claim refugee status, subject to additional health checks and self-isolating for 14 days. 

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the new agreement was consistent with the temporary restrictions on all non-essential travel between the countries.

“I don’t believe that Canada has the legal right to deny a person who is on Canadian soil the right to claim refugee status, even under these exceptional times we are living in with COVID-19,” said Norbert Piché, the Canadian representative of the Jesuit Refugee Service, in an e-mail. “Morally, it is not the right thing to do. Has the government really considered what will happen to these people once they are sent back to the U.S.A.?”

More than 57,000 people have crossed into Canada at unofficial border crossings since 2017, most of them at a point along Roxham Road in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que. The influx was triggered by a U.S. crackdown on illegal immigrants and statements by President Donald Trump.

The Canadian Council for Refugees condemned the new restrictions.

“We are shocked and deeply disappointed at the Government of Canada’s abandonment of the rule of law in sending back refugee claimants at the U.S.-Canada border,” said the CCR in a statement.

The Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers called Canada’s sudden reverse in policy “unnecessary and unjustified.”

In addition to the new restrictions on irregular asylum seekers, Canadian visa offices around the world have cancelled interviews with sponsored refugees who are residing abroad and awaiting clearance to come to Canada, said Deacon Rudy Ovcjak, director of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office for Refugees.

“It is very sad that this step had to be taken, but it is very understandable given the threat of COVID-19 to Canadians,” Ovcjak said. “I believe that most Canadians would view this as a prudent and reasonable step taken by the Canadian government.”

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