Canada closes its border to asylum seekers during coronavirus pandemic
On March 20, CBC reported, “Canada will now turn back asylum-seekers attempting to enter the country outside of official border points.”
“The reciprocal agreement [with the United States] on irregular migrants, which [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau called an ‘exceptional’ and temporary measure, was signed earlier today [Friday March 20].”
“The development comes just one day after the government announced all border-crossers would be under quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, and that the federal government was looking for space to shelter the arrivals.”
In response to the closing of the border to asylum seekers, the Canadian Council for Refugees has commented, “During a pandemic, we must uphold our commitments to protecting the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants. This includes our fundamental legal obligation to not turn refugees away at the borders.”
Canada is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention which carries with it a legal and moral responsibility to provide asylum to those who seek it.
The situation in the United States
The asylum seekers turned away by Canada would face the policies now being implemented by the Trump administration in the United States.
It’s not clear what will happen to them from that point, other than widely expressed concerns that the United States should not be considered a “safe” country as stipulated in the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement.
Additionally, on March 20, NPR reported, “The administration wants $567 million ‘to fund up to nine migrant quarantine facilities along the Southwest border, including repurposed soft-sided facilities originally used for the migrant surge in 2019’.”
For the migrants trapped in camps on the Mexico side of the US border, there are serious concerns about their vulnerability to the coronavirus.
Al Jazeera has reported, “Doctors working at a makeshift migrant and refugee encampment along the US-Mexico border are treating the potential arrival of the novel coronavirus, now declared a worldwide pandemic, as a certainty, not a possibility.”
“A doctor at the camp in Matamoros, Mexico, said when COVID-19 arrives here, it will be ‘catastrophic’, and people will die. About 2,500 migrants and asylum seekers live in the encampment, which consists of thousands of tents.”
Matamoros is located about 400 kilometres east of Saltillo where the Peace Brigades International-Mexico Project accompanies the Saltillo Migrant Shelter.
Human rights obligations
Human Rights Watch has noted, “International human rights law, notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), requires that restrictions on rights for reasons of public health or national emergency be lawful, necessary, and proportionate.”
It adds, “Freedom of movement under international human rights law protects, in principle, the right of everyone to leave any country… Restrictions on these rights can only be imposed when lawful, for a legitimate purpose, and when the restrictions are proportionate, including in considering their impact.”
The CBC reports, “Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said asylum seekers do not represent a higher public health risk, but monitoring and isolating them would present a challenge in unprecedented circumstances.”
Human rights at risk
Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, have warned, “People on the move, including refugees, may be particularly targeted.”
And UK-based Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch has commented, “Our human rights protections – long maligned by many of the politicians now running our pandemic-stricken nation – were designed for moments such as this.”
She highlights, “The continuing shutdown caused by coronavirus doesn’t make them less relevant, it makes them more important than ever.”