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Refugee Rights Day in the era of COVID-19: Back to the future?

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Image: leenient/Flickr

On April 4, people across Canada mark Refugee Rights Day in celebration of the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark decision in the Singh case. Thirty-five years ago, the court ruled that refugees enjoy the rights to "life, liberty and security of the person," and have a right to an oral hearing to make their refugee protection claim.

This year, however, there will be a pall over that anniversary. For the past two weeks, Canada has banned refugee claimants from entering this country from the U.S., subject to narrow exceptions. In so doing, we abandon our international legal commitments under the 1951 Refugee Convention, the foundation of Canadian and international refugee law. So we are faced with an uncomfortable truth: while refugee claimants' hard-fought right to an oral hearing was affirmed 35 years ago, today the fight is for their claims to be heard at all. 

Unfortunately, legal deficiencies are only the beginning of why this makes for bad policy. 

The restrictions on cross-border movement is appropriately framed around a reduction of non-essential travel. Accordingly, some say that the U.S. is safe and there is no need for refugee protection claimants to come to Canada. 

For many refugee claimants, nothing could be further from the truth. In July 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called out the U.S. on a measure that would bar the majority of those seeking protection at its southern border from seeking protection in the U.S., saying it "jeopardizes the right to protection from refoulement." Then, late last year, the Trump administration signed "cooperation agreements" so that it could remove refugee claimants to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to make their claims there instead. The U.S. then put these claimants on charter flights to those countries, reportedly without even informing them of their destination. 

If Canada's new ban is effective, we will be complicit in any subsequent abuses that refugee claimants might face in the U.S. or elsewhere. But whether these measures will be effective is a question in its own right. For claimants who face the most extreme consequences of American refugee policies -- be they bars to claiming protection, family separation, detention in abhorrent conditions -- it is naive to think that they won't find a way across our almost-9,000 kilometre long border. Faced with desperation -- a feeling that has touched many in Canada and around the world over the past days -- they will persist. For some, the stakes couldn't be higher. 

Still, others may quarrel about the numbers, insisting that Canada is a compassionate country, but that we just can't deal with these refugee claimants right now. This argument ignores the scale of the challenge that we are being asked to meet. In a recent press conference, Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair mentioned that the daily number of people crossing irregularly had fallen to 17. Not 170, not 1,700. 17. The idea that Canada would abandon its moral and international legal obligations over this number of refugee claimants is astounding, and betrays an incredible lack of confidence in our institutions to respond to challenges of COVID-19.  

This is particularly disappointing when we know that COVID-19 does not discriminate amongst its human hosts, and, as such, the appropriate measure for processing refugee protection claimants coming from the U.S. ought to have been the same as for anyone else: observe a 14-day quarantine, and test as appropriate.

Finally, with Canada's decision to institute our own version of pushbacks on our southern border, we will have no moral authority to protest the unlawful behaviour of others who do the same. We will also lose the ability to encourage other countries to live up to their obligations under the Refugee Convention in times of war and conflict, where the numbers of border crossers can amount to hundreds of thousands, or even millions. 

This leaves us with the question: what is next? With this decision, Canada has already painted itself into a corner. As former prime minister Jean Chretien once famously remarked, when painted in a corner, the only way out may be to walk on some wet paint. This Refugee Rights Day, let's hope our political leaders find the courage to take that step soon.

Justin Mohammed is Amnesty International Canada's human rights and law policy campaigner.

Image: leenient/Flickr

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