Two months after border control measures were introduced, advocates say they wonder what happens to asylum seekers who are turned back at the Canada-U.S. border, raising concerns for their health and safety.
On March 21, the federal government announced that individuals entering Canada from the United States to make an asylum claim will be sent back to the U.S., noting the measures are “temporary” but are part of a necessary response to the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal government has since relaxed those rules, allowing claimants eligible for exemptions under the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. to enter the country through official land border crossings – as long as they quarantine for 14 days. This includes claimants with family in Canada and those with valid documents, like a work permit.
Migrants that enter through irregular border crossings, such as at Quebec’s Roxham Road, however, will temporarily be denied entry and sent back to the U.S., with the opportunity to come back to the border to make an asylum claim once the measures are lifted.
Refugee advocates say they are concerned about what happens to asylum seekers upon their return to the U.S., which has yet to be revealed by the Canadian government.
“What is not in a public written document are the terms of the people who are turned back into the United States," said Maureen Silcoff, co-chair of the Canadian Association for Refugee Lawyers. "It would make sense to have those clear.
“We know the U.S. is not a trusted partner in dealing with asylum seekers. We’ve seen what’s happened over the past few years, with children being put in cages and extreme measures being taken for people who want asylum in the United States, and so we have to be careful.”
Silcoff said asylum seekers being denied entry into Canada may be detained in the U.S., potentially putting them at risk of contracting the coronavirus inside detention centres.
Or they could be deported, said Halifax Refugee Clinic executive director Julie Chamagne, returning them to “potentially very dangerous and persecutory conditions in their country of origin.”
As a result, some may try crossing over into Canada using “alternative routes,” which could be “more dangerous for them” because they may run into smugglers and “more dangerous just in general from a public health perspective,” Chamagne added.
The Chronicle Herald requested a copy of the agreement reached between the Canadian and U.S. governments laying out the terms and conditions of the border measures introduced, but Canada Border Services Agency spokesperson Jacqueline Callin said the agency is "unable to provide the document requested as it is confidential as it is a matter of diplomatic relations."
Callin noted that between March 21 and May 24, 28 asylum seekers were directed back to the United States, 25 of which were irregular asylum seekers. Of those 25, 16 were directed back to the U.S. in Quebec and nine others in British Columbia. The other three asylum seekers presented at a port of entry in southern Ontario and were directed back to the U.S. Additionally, two asylum seekers were allowed to proceed under the exemptions to the rule.
"Individuals directed back to the U.S. will be able to make a claim for asylum when the border restrictions are lifted. This is the same process that has been in place for the last month and it still applies, unchanged. Canada is committed to upholding its international obligations with respect to refugees," she added.
Both Silcoff and Chamagne said while the change to allow some asylum seekers to enter into Canada if they are eligible for exemptions under the Safe Third Country Agreement is a “welcome step,” the government should consider allowing all asylum seekers in, as long as they have a clear plan to embark on a mandatory 14-day quarantine period upon entry into Canada.
“Of course public health is a top priority during the pandemic and at the same time, it’s also possible to allow for vulnerable people to get proper accommodations, and that includes refugees,” Silcoff said.
Chamagne said she knows of a few families in the U.S. who were hoping to seek asylum in Canada and eventually come to Nova Scotia that are affected by the measures, adding the number of asylum seekers trying to come to Canada “is really not so much and should be able to be regulated” by the government.
"A lot of people are able to enter Canada, like seasonal foreign workers have arrived, international students can come in, people who are going to be landing as (permanent residents) but who aren't (permanent residents) yet, close family members of Canadian citizens, people who travel for work, truck drivers. Asylum seekers ... should be an exception as well."