Open letter: Canada must show leadership in protecting rights of refugees, migrants

The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister of Canada

80 Wellington Street

Ottawa, Ontario

K1A 0A2


13 May 2020

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau,

Re: Demonstrating Global Leadership on Refugees and Migrants in light of COVID-19

We write this Open Letter to you, amidst the unprecedented challenges governments everywhere face in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, to express our firm conviction that Canada can, and must, provide much needed global leadership when it comes to providing meaningful human rights protection for migrants and refugees around the world. We write as Canadians, permanent residents and refugees living in Canada who have had opportunities to serve in roles or positions internationally in which we have engaged substantially in concerns about refugee protection globally. We have witnessed and appreciated the value of Canadian leadership in the past and stress how urgently needed it is at this time.

As you are aware, countries around the world are closing their borders to contain the spread of COVID-19: according to recent information from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (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. As such, the options for people fleeing persecution are perhaps more constrained than they have ever been since the creation of the post-war refugee protection system. Hundreds of Rohingya refugees have recently been allowed to enter Bangladesh – but not before many lives were senselessly lost at sea, and many others remain stranded and abandoned. Almost 200 Syrian refugees were recently stranded at sea, trying to gain entry to Cyprus.

Closer to home, the US has all but ended territorial refugee protection: acting under a purported Title 42 U.S.C. 265 authority, the US has already expelled thousands of migrants, either to the “country of last transit or home country.” Alarmingly, the policy contains no exemption for unaccompanied children. Moreover, the US will only refer intercepted migrants for refugee protection hearings where an affirmative, spontaneous and “reasonably believable” claim of torture is advanced. This falls well short of what is required by international law.

These restrictive policies do not only imperil the right to seek refugee protection, they directly endanger the health of migrants and host communities alike. Physical distancing is impossible in densely populated camps or overfilled boats, handwashing is hard where basic amenities like soap and water are scarce or unavailable, and “shelter in place” orders presume a place in which to shelter.

Your government has made meaningful, public statements about Canada’s commitment to upholding the rights of migrants and refugees during this crisis.  We recall the clear pronouncements that Minster Freeland has made about Canada’s international legal obligations concerning non-refoulement. We appreciate Minister Champagne and Minister Gould’s statement that Canada will “work to ensure that vulnerable and marginalized communities, including refugees, internally displaced people and migrants…are not victimized under the cover of public health.” Indeed, in the early days of the pandemic’s spread around the world, you took the meaningful step of appointing Bob Rae as Canada’s Special Envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues.

However, Prime Minister, we believe that Canada’s approach – especially with regard to refugees entering from the US – must be improved so that we may truly and consistently demonstrate the international leadership that is so urgently required.  In light of the many ways that refugee protection in the US 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. Your government’s decision of 21 April 2020 to ease some of the restrictions at ports of entry along the US border is a first step, but there are many claimants who remain excluded from the essential right to seek refugee protection in Canada. Moreover, the lack of transparency about the measures through which Canada is ensuring that the rights of claimants directed back to the US will be protected is cause for concern, and raises questions about how your government can be confident that Canada is meeting its non-refoulement obligations. 

Prime Minister, we urge that your government review the current policy and practice with a view to rendering Canada fully compliant with its international legal obligations and the specific guidance that the UNHCR has provided to states with respect to the COVID-19 context. Anything less will undermine the credibility of Canada’s exhortation that all governments should respect the rights of refugees in their COVID-19 responses and beyond, particularly as it relates to countries that face much greater challenges with far fewer resources. 

If your government were to lift the current restrictions, allow refugee claimants to cross into Canada to seek protection and implement the same measures which are applicable to other essential cross-border travel (namely, quarantine and testing as appropriate) you would set the example that is so urgently needed on the world stage. You would make it clear that there should be no choice between protecting refugees and protecting public health; the two can and must go hand in hand.

It is difficult for us to imagine other travel which is as “essential” as leaving home in search of Canada’s protection.  That legal obligation and moral value should guide and determine Canadian policy at this critical time.


Mustafa Alio: Global Network for Refugee Voices

Honourable Louise Arbour: Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration; President and CEO, International Crisis Group (2009-2014); United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (2004-2008)

Honourable Lloyd Axworthy: Executive Director, World Refugee Council; Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs (1996-2000); Canadian Minister of Employment and Immigration (1980-1983, 1993-1996)

François Crépeau: UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants (2011-2017); Hans & Tamar Oppenheimer Chair in Public International Law, McGill University 

Muzna Dureid: Global Network for Refugee Voices

Fen Osler Hampson: Executive Director, World Refugee Council; Chancellor’s Professor and Professor of International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University

James Hathaway: James E. and Sarah A. Degan Professor of Law and Director, Program in Refugee and Asylum Law, University of Michigan

France-Isabelle Langlois, Directrice générale, Amnistie internationale Canada francophone

Dr Joanne Liu: Pédiatre urgentiste, CHU Ste-Justine, Présidente Internationale de Médecins Sans Frontières (2013-2019)

James Milner: Advisor, World Refugee Council; Associate Professor of Political Science, Carleton University; Project Director, Local Engagement Refugee Research Network

Alex Neve: Secretary General, Amnesty International Canada (English Branch)

Senator Ratna Omidvar: Councillor, World Refugee Council

Honourable Alan Rock: Advisor, World Refugee Council; Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations (2004-2006)

Jessie Thomson: Councillor, World Refugee Council; Vice President, International Programs, CARE Canada

cc:     Hon. Chrystia Freeland, Deputy Prime Minister of Canada

Hon. François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Foreign Affairs

Hon. Karina Gould, Minister of International Development

Hon. Marco E. L. Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship

Hon. Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety

Hon. Bob Rae, Canada’s Special Envoy on Humanitarian and Refugee Issues