Refugee advocates say blocking asylum seekers from crossing border puts lives at risk

(Photo by Mikhail Kusayev,

By Brian Dryden, Canadian Catholic News

[Ottawa – CCN]  – The federal government’s decision to extend strict guidelines that block all but “essential” travel between the United States and Canada until at least June 21 has disappointed refugee and migrant advocates who have been calling on the federal government to ease those restrictions.

A recent open letter from Amnesty International Canada to Prime Minister Justine Trudeau and the federal government stated: “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,” continued the May 13 letter asking the government to make it easier for refugees to get into Canada at this time.

Making it easier for refugees and migrants to get into Canada from the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a been an ongoing issue for some religious and social justice groups since the strict restrictions on entry into Canada from the United States were first enacted in March. The restrictions have since been extended twice.

When the border crossing restrictions were first extended in April, the federal government did ease some restrictions for refugees by allowing unaccompanied minors and people who already have family in Canada to apply for refuge at regular border crossings.

But along with blocking most refugee claims at the border, the federal government has consistently maintained a policy that all people trying to cross into Canada at irregular crossing points will automatically be turned back over to U.S. officials, a situation that refugee advocates say puts their lives at risk.

Jesuit Refugee Services-Canada director Norbert Piché said it is not surprising that the border closure between Canada and the United States was extended considering the number of cases in the United States and the situation in Quebec and Ontario, which are the two hardest hit provinces when it comes COVID-19 cases and deaths. But he said that doesn’t mean Canada should turn its back on asylum seekers at this time.

“Refugees have a right to safety and all indications are that this is not the case south of the Canadian border,” he said. “It is time to do something while they are still healthy, for example, quarantine measures exist at the Lacolle border crossing.”

The call for the federal government to do more to open up the border to refugee claims from the United States is echoed by the religion-based advocacy organization Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ).

“We are dismayed that the government has not eased the restrictions for asylum seekers in relation to how they apply at the border for possible refugee claims,” said Stephen Kaduuli, a refugee policy analyst with CPJ.

“With what asylum seekers endure in the U.S., Canada should continue showing compassion and global leadership in the protection of refugees,” Kaduuli said.

“It is important that Canada continues abiding by its commitments to international humanitarian and human rights law. Sending irregular border-crossers back into the U.S. risks putting them into the custody of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and endangers their lives,” he said, adding that “fleeing to protect their lives” should be considered “essential” travel.

“Canada should continue allowing them to cross while at the same time implementing public health measures like enforcing the 14-day quarantine that applies to other essential cross-border travel,” Kaduuli said.

Closing the Canadian and U.S. border to all but essential travel is supported by the vast majority of Canadians according to opinion polls. An Angus Reid Institute survey released May 22 indicates that most Canadians want strict border crossing measures to remain in place well beyond the recent extension that lasts until June 21.

“Given the choice of three alternative timelines, two-in-five Canadians (42%) would keep the border closed until September, one-quarter would close it until the end of the year, and 13 per cent would extend the closure into 2021,” the Angus Reid report said, adding only 19 per cent of Canadians supported opening the border after June 21.