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Refugee Rights Day: The Right to Asylum

Janet McFetridge, a resident of Champlain, NY, welcomed asylum seekers six days a week at Roxham Road, prior to its closure.
April 6, 2020

Every year on April 4, we celebrate Refugee Rights Day in Canada to commemorate the historic 1985 Singh Decision by the Canadian Supreme Court, that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the right of refugee claimants to “life, liberty and security […] and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” 

Today, as we face the countless challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, have we lost sight of the right to security and asylum enshrined in both the 1951 Refugee Convention and within Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

On March 18, 2020 Canada implemented new restrictions to air travel in response to COVID-19 that would only permit entry to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, with only a few exceptions for foreign nationals.   

The following day, the government announced it would continue to allow migrants to cross through irregular land entry points such as Roxham Road and seek asylum, while upholding public health recommendations through screening and isolation measures. One day later however, this was revoked in favor of a reciprocal agreement with the United States, wherein nearly all migrants entering Canada by land would be turned back to the United States. Similarly, the United States has restricted the entry of asylum seekers on its southern border, turning migrants back to Mexico.

The air travel restriction in tandem with the closure of the land border, has effectively rendered the ability to seek asylum in Canada impossible. 

Canada is not unique in this; countries across the world have closed their borders. Pew Research Centre calculated that 93 percent of the world is currently living in a country with travel restrictions for non-citizens and non-residents. Recently, 200 Syrian refugees arriving by boat to Cyprus were turned away by authorities. While the breadth and challenges of this pandemic are undoubtedly colossal, other grievances of war, persecution and violence have not ceased to exist — the war in Syria, gang violence in Central America, and the dire socio-economic crisis in Venezuela continue. 

As a global society, what is our response to those who must flee their homes in search of safety during this pandemic? Where do they belong?

Canada has made great strides to respect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. In addition to guaranteeing fundamental rights to education, healthcare, and employment, Canada has implemented innovative policies such as the Private Sponsorship Program and the newly piloted Economic Mobilities Pathway that facilitate belonging in the community and in the economy. More recently, in response to COVID-19, Quebec has assured free testing and treatment to all, regardless of immigration status.  

Do the current policies that restrict the entry of refugee claimants threaten to undermine Canadian values that have allowed newcomers to find refuge here and build a new home? UNHCR’s legal guidance to countries during the COVID-19 pandemic stipulates that, “States may put in place measures which may include a health screening or testing of persons seeking international protection upon entry and/or putting them in quarantine, but such measures may not result in denying them an effective opportunity to seek asylum or result in refoulement.”

In April 2019, SCSC began offering Welcome Sessions to foster greater belonging for newly arrived asylum seekers in Montreal. Our volunteers — ambassadors of Montreal who believe that this city and country thrives on inclusivity — have been a constant force, here to welcome those who arrive after crossing through Roxham Road and other channels, and they remain committed. The sudden halt in the arrival of newcomers has led to widespread concern about the conditions refugee claimants will be returned to: they face being held in the United States’ notoriously unhygienic migrant detention centers with limited protection against COVID-19, or deportation to the life-threatening situation they were fleeing. 

This pandemic reminds us that before all else, we belong to this planet, to nature, to a shared humanity, and to each other. As we close our borders to those fleeing for their lives, we must ask ourselves, is this what belonging looks like? If we choose to respond to this pandemic by protecting only our own citizens at the expense of others, then where does this leave us as a global society? A pandemic requires a concerted global effort that is, at its core, inclusive. We must safeguard the right to asylum to uphold not only our legal obligations, but more fundamentally, our moral obligation as human beings.