Refugee advocates say Canada could be in legal hot water if the United States deports asylum seekers turned away from Canada as part of a broader deal with the U.S. to close the border to all but non-essential traffic. A sign is seen near the border near Emerson, Man., Friday, May 5, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan

Canada could face legal trouble over refugee deportations amid COVID-19 crisis: advocates

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said any refugees crossing border would be turned back

Refugee advocates say Canada could be in legal hot water if the United States deports asylum seekers turned away from Canada as part of a broader deal with the U.S. to close the border to all but non-essential traffic.

On Monday, the U.S. announced a 30-day agreement with both Canada and Mexico that includes immediately returning any migrants without legal status to the countries from which they arrived, or to their countries of origin if that isn’t possible, rather than holding them at U.S. facilities.

Prime Minister Trudeau said last week anyone crossing between the two countries on foot to claim asylum will be turned away as part of the temporary border deal aimed at combating COVID-19.

This has raised questions about whether refugees turned back by Canada would be returned to their country of origin.

Alex Neve, secretary general at Amnesty International Canada, says the federal government should be concerned about the legal culpability such a move could place upon Canada.

Canada’s international obligations regarding refugees include a commitment to “non-refoulement,” which means not sending refugees back to countries where they could face torture or persecution.

If a refugee turned away by Canada is later deported to a country where they are harmed, Canada could be considered complicit in this outcome and therefore legally liable, Neve said.

“The other end of non-refoulement for a refugee is the possibility of death, torture, rape, arbitrary imprisonment. We cannot close our eyes to that, not only morally, but legally,” he said in an interview Saturday.

“It is entirely possible that if someone was subject to refoulement having been impacted by this border accord that we negotiated, that we would be legally liable. We would be complicit in what happened to them.”

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Friday she is holding “urgent” discussions with U.S. officials over the issue, adding she wants assurances that refugees returned by Canada to the U.S. will not face refoulement.

“It is important for us to abide by our international commitments when it comes to refugees and we are very alive to concerns around refoulement.”

Refugee advocates were harshly critical of the move by Canada to temporarily turn away asylum seekers in the midst of a pandemic when it was announced last week.

Now that Canada knows refugees could face the prospect of being returned to their countries of origin — countries they have fled seeking humanitarian aid — Canada should walk away from this deal with the U.S., Neve said.

“This is why we should never have entered into this accord in the first place, it is just simply too fraught and the likelihood that concerns like this will continue to come up is almost inescapable.”

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, says her members were “extremely skeptical” from the outset that this new deal would ensure refugee rights are protected.

That skepticism has proven to be well-founded, Dench said.

“It seems like the Liberals have been hiding behind this fig leaf that they had some assurances from the U.S. government that, from the beginning, seemed extremely flimsy. And it’s now been exposed this fig leaf doesn’t really exist,” she said.

“They are trying to pretend they care about the rights of refugees, but if they cared about refugees they certainly wouldn’t have acted in this way.”

She agreed that Canada could face legal trouble if an asylum seeker turned away by Canada is deported by the United States.

READ MORE: Federal doctor says COVID-19 battle will last ‘months, many months’ as cases soar

Since 2017, more than 56,000 people have crossed into Canada from the U.S. on foot using informal openings in the border, the best known being one in Quebec called Roxham Road.

They do this to get around the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., which forbids people from applying for asylum at regular land border crossings, on the grounds that people need to ask for refugee status where they arrive first and that both countries are safe.

The majority of these “irregular” migrants came to Canada from countries like Haiti and Nigeria and were in America legally. Many had temporary travel visas while others had temporary protected status in the U.S.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Matthew Dyman said Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, only repatriates people who are illegally present in the U.S.

“If people are in the U.S. illegally ICE would co-ordinate to fly them to their home countries,” he said in an email.

Even before these more recent developments, advocates were arguing major changes to U.S. immigration policy, including detentions and deportations of asylum seekers, have effectively rendered the U.S. unsafe for refugees and the Safe Third Country Agreement should be changed.

Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Council of Churches are currently involved in a legal challenge of the agreement with the United States, arguing the agreement violates certain provisions of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“Now we have just one more indication in which U.S. policy so frequently throws refugees under the bus,” Neve said.

“This indication that the U.S. is simply going to deport them as quickly as possible is a further indictment of the U.S. record living up to refugee protection obligations and one more reason why the Safe Third Country Agreement in its entirety needs to be scrapped.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirusrefugee

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

When crisis hits: How West Shore RCMP have dealt with the pandemic

More front-line officers on road in mobile offices

Sidney staff recommends additional outdoor seating for restaurants and cafes

Report before council also leaves open possibility of closing a portion of Beacon Avenue

French fries to juicy tomatoes, rock art brings joy to walkers in Victoria

James Bay yard filled with painted rocks delights all ages

‘Depression-era’ unemployment figures could hit Greater Victoria

South Island Prosperity Project launches new dashboard to measure effects of COVID-19

Langford bartender hosts singalong livestream for seniors

Live Senior Singalong takes place daily at 1 p.m. on Facebook

LIVE: Procession to honour Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey comes to Halifax

Snowbirds service member died in a crash in Kamloops one week ago

RCMP facing ‘systemic sustainability challenges’ due to provincial policing role

Provinces, territories and municipalities pay anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of the cost of the RCMP’s services

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that would have… Continue reading

One man dead after standoff with Chilliwack RCMP

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the RCMP’s role in the death

B.C. employers worry about safety, cash flow, second wave in COVID-19 restart

A survey found 75 per cent of businesses worry about attracting customers

Ex-BC Greens leader Andrew Weaver says province came close to early election

Disagreement centred on the LNG Canada project in northern B.C.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money

B.C. premier says lessons to learn from past racism during response to pandemic

B.C. formally apologized in the legislature chamber in 2008 for its role in the Komagata Maru tragedy

Snowbirds to remain at Kamloops Airport indefinitely after fatal crash

small contingent of the Snowbirds team is staying in Kamloops, acting as stewards of the jets

Most Read