As countries around the world close their borders to contain the spread of COVID-19, Amnesty International is calling on the federal government to set an example of humane treatment of refugees and open Canada’s borders to asylum seekers from the U.S.
In an open letter signed, among others, by former Liberal cabinet ministers Lloyd Axworthy and Allan Rock, Amnesty International urges Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to show “much needed global leadership when it comes to providing meaningful human rights protection for migrants and refugees.”
The letter notes that according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), approximately 167 countries have fully or partially closed their borders, with at least 57 of those making no exceptions for people seeking refugee protection.
Canada became one of those countries when the Trudeau government struck a deal with the U.S. in March to close the border to all non-essential traffic as part of global efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The deal banned nearly everyone entering from the U.S. from filing a refugee claim in Canada.
‘We will continue to defend our values’
In April, the federal government modified the regulations somewhat to allow some refugees to claim asylum in Canada, but the new rules do not apply to those who cross the border through irregular crossings, such as the Roxham Road crossing on the border of Quebec and New York State.
“We believe that Canada’s approach – especially with regard to refugees entering from the U.S. – must be improved so that we may truly and consistently demonstrate the international leadership that is so urgently required,” the letter states.
“In light of the many ways that refugee protection in the U.S. falls far short of crucial international legal obligations, it is important for Canada to open its borders to those who are unable to find protection and have their rights upheld there.”
Allowing refugee claimants to cross into Canada and implementing public health measures such as the 14-day quarantine that applies to other essential cross-border travel, would show the rest of the world “that there should be no choice between protecting refugees and protecting public
health; the two can and must go hand in hand,” says the letter.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Friday, Trudeau said Canada has a strong tradition of protecting the most vulnerable around the world while at the same time ensuring the strength and the rigour of its immigration systems and processes.
“We will continue to defend our values, we will continue to stay true to the way Canadians are open and welcoming while expecting the rules to be followed and that is something that we will always do,” Trudeau said.
‘More compassion, not less’
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said she was deeply disappointed with the Liberal approach.
“I agree that Canada needs to keep Canadians safe and our frontline workers focused on fighting COVID-19 but we must continue to respond to this global crisis with more compassion, not less,” Kwan said.
“The current unprecedented situation with COVID-19 does not mean that the global forced displacement crisis is over, nor does it mean that the conditions for those fleeing persecution had stopped.”
It is essential that Canada abides by its commitments to international humanitarian and human rights law, Kwan said.
The decision by the federal government to send irregular border crossers back into the U.S., and potentially into the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency is deeply concerning, she said.
Critics of the move have noted that this would be a violation of the non-refoulement principle of international law, which guarantees that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.
According to the UN, the non-refoulement principle applies to all migrants at all times, irrespective of migration status.
“Forcibly separating children from their parents was never the right thing to do,” Kwan said.
“Rejecting asylum to those fleeing gender-based violence and gang violence is inhumane and it is potentially life threatening.”
Trudeau said his primary responsibility as Prime Minister of Canada is ensuring the security of Canadians.
The Conservatives for years have been calling on the Liberals to crack down on illegal border crossings into Canada from the U.S.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Michelle Rempel Garner is Conservative critic for immigration and refugees. In fact, Peter Kent holds that role. (May 17, 2020 12:40 PM ET)
With files from The Canadian Press