Coronavirus: Closing Canada’s border to refugees violates international law, experts say

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to close the border to asylum seekers who enter the country irregularly amid the worsening global COVID-19 outbreak is a violation of international law, experts say.

“Deeply disappointed by Justin Trudeau’s decision to shut down the Canada-US border to refugees, in contravention of international refugee law and arguably Canadian constitutional law,” wrote immigration law professor Sean Rehaag on Twitter just hours after Friday’s announcement.

Rehaag, who leads York University’s Centre for Refugee Studies, also said the government’s decision puts Canadians’ health at risk because closing controlled border crossings for irregular migrants, such as Roxham Road in southern Quebec, will likely increase the chances that asylum seekers will find other ways to enter Canada.

“Refugee claimants go through medical checks and self-isolation (at places like Roxham Road).” Reghaag wrote. “Closing down such routes pushes asylum seekers to cross surreptitiously, with no screening.”

On Friday, Trudeau announced that irregular migrants crossing on foot from the U.S. will be turned away when they reach Canada as part of a wider border shutdown due to the new coronavirus pandemic.

Trudeau said that the move was part of a reciprocal agreement with the U.S. and that would-be refugees will be turned back “anywhere at the Canada-U.S. border.”

The decision comes amid security concerns around screening people at irregular border crossings for COVID-19 and hours before the closure of the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential travel, which goes into effect at midnight.

“Those who’ve already crossed the border will be put in isolation,” Trudeau said. “But in the future, those trying to cross the border irregularly will be released back into the U.S.”

Trudeau added that the new measures are “temporary” but nonetheless necessary as the world battles the spread of COVID-19, which had sickened nearly 250,000 people worldwide as of Thursday, including at least 846 Canadians.

Decision could create ‘more risk’

It’s unclear exactly how the government plans to patrol the more than 9,000-kilometre border between Canada and the U.S.

Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said Friday there’s “no evidence” that suggests asylum seekers are a higher health risk than others wanting to enter Canada, and that all non-essential travellers “posed a risk.”

“We would simply direct them back to curtail that irregular migration — which was very difficult, quite frankly, to monitor — to ensure the safety of Canadians,” Blair said.

A spokesperson for Blair’s office later said the decision to close the border to irregular migrants was made based on decisions by the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) who are “concerned that international travel could increase the exposure of refugees to the virus.”

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