Refugee, Human Rights, and Legal Organizations Call for Border to be Reopened to Refugees in Lead Up to Refugee Rights Day

April 2, 2020 – In the lead up to Refugee Rights Day, refugee, human rights, legal and civil liberties organizations are renewing their call for the Government of Canada to reopen the Canada-US border to refugee claims. Effective March 21, 2020, an Order-In-Council prohibits refugee claimants arriving from the United States to enter Canada for the purposes of refugee protection.

The Canadian Council for Refugees, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, Amnesty International, and BC Civil Liberties Association jointly call on the government to reconsider its closure of the Canada-US border to refugees. This closure violates international law. With Refugee Rights Day being marked across Canada on April 4, these organizations are calling attention to the grave threat to refugee rights with the prohibition on refugee arrivals at the land border.

According to Dorota Blumczynska, President of the Canadian Council for Refugees, “The right to seek asylum, to seek refuge, cannot and must be not compromised in the midst of this global pandemic. In fact, in times of such tremendous uncertainty, we must recommit and uphold the rights which are fundamental to our existence. It is abhorrent to turn away refugees who have every legal right, under both Canadian and international law, to enter Canada in order to save their lives. The Government of Canada with support from our Public Health Officials has the means to put in place self-isolation requirements for arriving refugee claimants. Refugee claimants, including families with children, are equally invested in the wellbeing of their loved ones, their neighbours, and friends and would pose no greater threat to public health than arriving international students or temporary foreign workers.”

Turning back refugee claimants to the US violates Canada’s legal obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, protected rights under section 7 and section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, and could violate the Convention against Torture. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has published key legal considerations on refugees seeking asylum in the context of the COVID-19 response. These legal considerations clearly stipulate that imposing a blanket measure to preclude the admission of refugees without evidence of a health risk and without measures to protect refugees from forced return to persecution or torture would be discriminatory and would not meet international standards.

“Canada’s decision is out of step with public health measures designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, and runs counter to our international legal obligations. From moral, public health and legal perspectives, closing the border to refugee claimants is wrong. Turning refugee claimants away—including as a result of the decision to shut down the Canada/US border—exposes refugees, who face increased hardship, danger and ostracization worldwide related to this pandemic, to serious human rights violations, including inhumane immigration detention conditions and the risk of refoulement to torture and other human rights abuses,” states Alex Neve, Secretary General at Amnesty International Canada.

According to Harsha Walia, Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, “The federal announcement to temporarily suspend refugee arrivals at the Canada-US border violates international law, refugee rights, and principles of human rights. It is also not necessary to preserve public health. Refugees must be actively included in, not excluded from, our public health response. This decision is particularly disturbing as we celebrate Refugee Rights Day on April 4. Refugees have a right to safety and the COVID-19 pandemic is a global one; we can’t displace the pandemic beyond our borders.”

“We urge the Prime Minister to reconsider. The government had earlier announced a sensible plan to ensure safe housing and quarantine for refugees crossing in to Canada during the COVID-19 crisis. The vast majority of refugees were crossing at a specific location, and this ensured orderly processing into the refugee system, and fulsome application of public health measures. If this policy is maintained, even in the short term, the federal government must secure firm assurances that refugee claimants who are turned back at the border and into ICE custody, are not returned to their country of persecution, nor placed into immigration detention. Canada should also commit that such claimants will be able to return to the border after the crisis is over, without prejudice to their ability to seek refugee protection in this country,” further states Maureen Silcoff, President of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

The groups maintain that the closure of the border to refugees is unnecessary and unjustified. It endangers both refugees and our public health. We do not have to choose between tackling the pandemic and upholding human rights: we can and should do both.

Media inquiries:

Janet Dench, Canadian Council for Refugees:

Lucy Scholey, Media Relations Officer at Amnesty International Canada: 613-853-2142

Anthony Navaneelan, Vice-President, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers: 416-873-7528

Harsha Walia, Executive Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association: 778-885-0040