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Good refugee protection and public health should co-exist in Canada

Since March, Canada’s borders have been shut to nearly all claimants seeking protection from persecution. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Author of the article:

Dr. Meb Rashid, Maureen Silcoff

Publishing date:

Sep 16, 2020  •   •  3 minute read

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets members of a Syrian refugee family during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Friday, July 1, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang ORG XMIT: jdt102 0916 na trudeau ORG XMIT: POS1607011409268797
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets members of a Syrian refugee family during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill in 2016. Initially, his government recognized the link between good refugee policy and sound public health practices. Photo by Justin Tang /THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Federal refugee policy during the current pandemic turns its back on Canada’s humanitarian obligations while doing relatively little to promote and protect public health.

We need to revise the pandemic restrictions for refugees. Since March, Canada’s borders have been shut to nearly all refugee claimants seeking protection in this country. These restrictions have been made under the guise of preserving public health.

It did – and does – not have to be this way. At the outset of the pandemic, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced what would have been a good policy: refugee claimants would be allowed to enter Canada but would be required to quarantine for 14 days like anyone else entering Canada from abroad.

Regrettably, that plan was shelved at the 11th hour in exchange for the current wide-ranging restrictions that bar all refugee claimants who do not meet one of a few very narrow exceptions from entering Canada.

The government’s earlier plan was good. Blair and the government should give it a second look. Some claimants will have places to go to quarantine (e.g. friends, extended family) while others may require temporary assistance from the government in order to properly quarantine. The cost of doing so is a drop in the bucket viewed in the context of overall pandemic-related spending.

Since the restrictions on refugees were put into place, Canada has slowly opened its doors to those whose travel is deemed essential, including truck drivers, some foreign students and about 500 hockey players and accompanying coaches and staff.

By allowing entry to these groups but not to refugee claimants, Canada – a global leader in refugee protection – is signalling to the world that, during a pandemic, refugee travel is not essential. As Canadians, we have an obligation to protect those fleeing persecution. This obligation does not vanish during a pandemic.

In fact, the government recently celebrated the vital role that refugees have played in caring for the sick and the elderly during the pandemic. Refugee claimants and failed refugees who have worked as nurses, nurses’ assistants, and personal support workers now have a pathway to permanent residence. Had these front-line workers attempted to enter Canada today, they would have been turned back to the United States.

Some would-be refugee claimants, who remain in Donald Trump’s America waiting out the pandemic, face health risks of their own, for which Canada bears some responsibility. The Federal Court recently struck down the Safe Third-Country Agreement (the government is currently appealing). In her decision, Justice Ann Marie McDonald cited the experience of one of the litigants, who described her experience in solitary confinement in a U.S. prison as “a terrifying, isolating and psychologically traumatic experience” in a “freezing cold” facility.

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Canada’s current policies cannot completely prevent refugee claimants from crossing the border, which itself poses twin health-related concerns.

First, Canada’s decision to temporarily shutter its operations at Roxham Road, where the bulk of irregular border crossings take place, promotes truly irregular entry of individuals who could be virus carriers. It is inevitable that some refugee claimants will continue to try to enter Canada, just at other points along the border, away from the eyes of Canadian authorities. If refugee claimants are allowed to enter Canada at regular ports of entry, they can be processed, identified and given proper quarantine instructions, lessening the risk to Canadians.

Second, this sort of irregular entry can be dangerous to the migrants themselves: crossings of forests, streams and other rough terrain are increasingly risky as temperatures begin to drop. Canadians were shocked by the images of at least two men who lost fingers from frostbite entering Manitoba in the winter of 2017. Canada should not continue a policy that drives individuals to take such risks in order to seek protection.

This is not the first time Canada has sacrificed its duties to refugees through public health policy. In 2012, the Stephen Harper government made dangerous cuts to refugee health care. In reversing those cuts, the current Liberal government recognized that refugee protection and public health go hand-in-hand. It is time for Canada to recognize and reflect this, in refugee policies during the pandemic.

Dr. Meb Rashid is medical director of the Crossroads Clinic at Women’s College Hospital and a co-founder of Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care. Maureen Silcoff is president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

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