Canada must honour its commitment to protecting refugees

Originally published on the Hamilton Spectator, co-authored with Elmer Dysalvador.

Canada is considered a global leader in refugee protection. As a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Canada has the obligation to respect the rights of refugees and not turn them away from its border.

Since Justin Trudeau became prime minister in October 2015, Canada has admitted more than 60,000 Syrian refugees. The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily halted the trend. As part of its pandemic containment measure, Canada closed its border to refugees on March 20. With the pandemic curve starting to flatten, Canada is slowly reopening its economy and lifting some of its containment measures. But as Canadians return to a semblance of normal life, Ottawa must fulfil its commitment to protect refugees and reopen its refugee protection programs.

In 1951, the United Nations adopted the Refugee Convention to guide countries around the world to protect refugees and asylum seekers. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 26 million refugees worldwide, which is about the same size as Australia’s population. But as COVID-19 forced many governments to close their borders, the future of refugees and asylum seekers have become uncertain more than ever.

Many refugees live in dense camps where access to water is scarce and physical distancing is practically impossible. In refugee camps in Greece, quarantine measures have exacerbated a problem of overcapacity in camps such as on Samos, which shelters over 6,000 refugees living in a camp with a capacity of less than 700. This has led to shortages of food and other essentials like medicines and hygiene products which are critical to the well-being of refugees. In May, the UN reported the first COVID-19 outbreak in the Kutapaling settlement in Bangladesh, which shelters around 860,000 Rohingya refugees. Officials in the field are concerned that the virus could lead to thousands of deaths and decimate the settlement.

Human rights groups have criticized Ottawa’s move to close its borders to refugee claimants as a violation of Canadian law and its commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

After months of intense restrictions, the COVID-19 infection rate in Canada has started to decline. In response, many Canadian provinces are beginning to reopen their economies. Prime Minister Trudeau has recently announced that Canada will allow immediate family members of citizens and permanent residents to come to Canada.

But Ottawa has yet to announce its approach regarding refugees and asylum seekers who have been in limbo since the government temporarily closed its borders to all but essential travel in March. It is time for Ottawa to start readmitting refugees and asylum seekers.

Reopening Canada’s refugee protection programs during a global pandemic while protecting the health of Canadians will be challenging. Therefore, there are areas that Canada needs to improve to ensure that its refugee protection programs are consistent with the new global situation. First and foremost, Ottawa must work with the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to enhance medical checks for refugees at all ports of entry.

Second, Canada should use this moment to heighten its partnerships with the UNHCR, which, as of March 17 has suspended its resettlement travel programs. As a designated referral organization, the UNHCR is responsible for identifying and referring refugees for resettlement in partner countries. Ottawa can start co-ordinating with UNHCR to gradually resume its suspended activities and ensure that its health screening process meets Canada’s standards, which can help Canada reduce the health risks associated with the movement of people.

Third, Ottawa should increase its support for not-for-profit and civil society organizations that help resettle refugees in various communities across Canada. These organizations can assist newly landed refugees to access COVID-19 prevention resources, health services and protection tools such as medical masks and disinfectants.

These are measures that Canada can do right now to comply with its own law and meet its obligations while ensuring that the health of millions of Canadians is protected.

The coming years will continue to pose new challenges to Canada’s refugee protection program and Ottawa will need to be up for the challenge.

For the last 70 years, Canada has been a world leader in the protection of displaced peoples. And with the World Refugee Day on June 20, Canada must reaffirm its international commitments to the protection of refugees.

About the authors: Elmer DySalvador is a researcher and a graduate of the Master of Public Policy and Human Development program at the United Nations University-MERIT, Netherlands. Luthfi Dhofier is a policy analyst and a writer based in Vancouver, B.C. He holds a master of public policy and global affairs from the University of British Columbia.

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