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The deportation of migrants continues despite coronavirus pandemic

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A migrant detention centre in Texas, June 2019. Image: Wikimedia Commons

While non-essential travel is being discouraged to contain the spread of coronavirus, the United States and Mexico are still continuing with the deportation of migrants seemingly without consideration of the human rights and public health impacts of doing so.

Canada deports about 9,500 people a year, but it's not clear from mainstream news articles if this practice has now been curtailed. And while prisons in Canada have primarily taken measures to safeguard staff and visitors, it's also not clear what measures are being taken at the immigration holding centres in Toronto, Laval and Vancouver to protect the health of those who are being detained.

The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement means that those who seek asylum at a regular border crossing in Canada are sent back to the United States on the presumption that it is a "safe" country for migrants. The Trudeau government has been seeking to "modernize" the agreement so that those who enter in between border stations would also be returned to the United States.

But how safe is the United States for migrants?

On March 11, the same day that the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that U.S. President Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy can stay in effect as legal challenges against it are pursued.

As CNN reported, "the policy, officially known as Migrant Protection Protocols, mandates that non-Mexican asylum return to Mexico as they await hearings in the United States. It has resulted in the creation of makeshift camps where hundreds of migrants have waited for weeks, if not months, in squalid and unsafe conditions."

Al Jazeera warns that "doctors working at a makeshift migrant and refugee encampment along the U.S.-Mexico border are treating the potential arrival of the novel coronavirus, now declared a worldwide pandemic, as a certainty, not a possibility."

The Trump administration has also pursued Safe Third Country-like agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In other words, a migrant from Honduras would be turned away from the U.S. border on the basis that they should have applied for asylum in Guatemala.

This week, The Guardian reported that three men presenting symptoms of the coronavirus have already been deported from the U.S. to Honduras, where "the healthcare system has been on the border of collapse for years."

Al Jazeera adds, "[On March 10], Honduras suspended deportation flights from Mexico," but as Reuters notes, "Bus deportations are not affected by the suspension."

Now, The Daily Caller reports that "the Guatemalan government . . . will soon ban arrivals from the United States and Canada" and adds that the country's president "has also asked Mexico to stop deportations by land to his country."

Migrant rights activists are raising concerns about the deportation of migrants to countries with weak health care systems, where appropriate quarantine procedures may not be in place, and note that conditions at detention centres could fuel the transmission of the virus.

Michelle Bachelet, a medical doctor and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has noted the importance of respecting human rights during this pandemic.

A spokesperson for Bachelet further explains, "What she's doing is making a universal call to governments to really consider the impact on economic and social rights by the steps they take -- that's why she's saying it's so important for human rights to be at the front and centre."

There are already reported incidents of anti-Asian racism in the context of this pandemic. And one populist media outlet has focused on "illegal immigrants" who are "coming into our country" at Roxham Road at the Quebec/New York state border and lamenting that they will receive "gold-plated" health care in this country.

The coronavirus pandemic has drawn attention to the need for public health care systems that can address crises such as this one, the economic precariousness faced by many workers, the ways in which CEOs -- notably at Tim Hortons and Whole Foods -- have responded to employees needing sick days, the impacts on those without housing, and the stark reality that inequality kills.

It is also now drawing attention to how society responds to people fleeing poverty, repression, conflict, violence, and climate breakdown.

Brent Patterson is a writer and activist. You can find him on Twitter @CBrentPatterson.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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