As Canada eases COVID-19 border restrictions, advocates say refugees’ travel is ‘essential’

Covid-19 immigration effects - Key Slides - May 2021 Draft.017On the good news side, the IRB backlog declined dramatically, with new claims falling by 68% and the backlog by 30%.

The progressive reduction in travel restrictions and requirements should allow for a more normal flow, with less concern for the irregular arrivals at non-official border posts given the Biden Administration’s approach:

Thanks to COVID-19 outbreaks in jails, immigration detainee Apollinaire Nduwimana was released from a U.S. prison in late April last year, after being held among convicted criminals for almost three years.

The asylum seeker from Burundi tried to head north for protection at Roxham Road in Quebec last October. But he didn’t know Canada had closed the border to refugees.

He was immediately intercepted, sent back to America and detained at the Clinton jail in Pennsylvania. He was threatened with deportation to his homeland despite assurances from Ottawa to let him return once COVID travel restrictions were lifted.

As of July, Nduwimana was one of 450 asylum seekers “directed back” to the U.S. since March 21, 2020, when Ottawa closed the border to non-essential travels. Although there have been exemptions, seeking asylum isn’t one of them.

With Ottawa slowly easing its travel restrictions, and border rules with the U.S. up for renewal on Wednesday, advocates say the federal government’s first order of business should be reopening the door to asylum seekers and sponsored refugees, the most vulnerable migrant group during the pandemic.

“Refugee travel is essential, we know that no one chooses to be a refugee,” said Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. “Refugees can in fact enter and quarantine. So that really should have been the starting point.”

According to the latest UN Refugee Agency report, 1.5 million fewer people fled their homelands in 2020 than forecast, but the world’s displaced population still edged to a record 82.4 million by the end of last year, up from 79.5 million in 2019.

That’s because, it said, asylum seekers were unable to cross borders, with 164 countries imposing travel bans, and 99 states, including Canada, making no exception for people seeking asylum.

In total, only 34,400 refugees were resettled to third countries in 2020, down 69 per cent from 107,800 the year before. Today, 1.4 million refugees are awaiting resettlement.

Amid the chaos, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada is the rare beneficiary of the border closure.

Last year, the number of new claims fell 68 per cent to 18,500, from 58,378 in 2019. These were mostly from those within Canada who entered legally and later decided to seek asylum, or who came to the border before the lockdown or belonged to one of the exemption groups.

The slowdown allowed the board to reduce its backlog, which fell 30 per cent to 65,000 by the end of June, from 91,300 in March 2020, as refugee judges moved hearings online and adapted to new health protocols in offices.

Nduwimana first arrived in the U.S. for asylum in 2017 but was detained until his release in April 2020.

Thanks to interventions of advocates on either side of the border, he is one of nine asylum seekers who have been issued a “national interest exemption letter” to return to Canada on a later date after he was turned back at the border.

But it’s not without hassles because there are no bilateral policies to ensure these “direct-back” asylum seekers will be released from detention or spared from deportation to come back to the border.

“I am not a criminal but I was detained with people convicted of murder and rape,” said Nduwimana, 41, who fled political persecution in Burundi, an East African country where human rights violations are such that Canada suspends all removals to that country.

“Canada has the obligation to protect asylum seekers. Instead they sent me back to a country that’s not safe for refugees,” added the former church pastor and university language instructor, who almost got deported in January before a U.S. court intervened.

Upon his release in March from another jail in upstate New York, he entered Canada at Fort Erie and had his 14-day mandatory quarantine at a Niagara hotel. He is now awaiting his proceedings.

Silcoff said Nduwimana’s case shows refugee travel can coexist with public health measures and the current refugee ban can be lifted.

Despite public fear that Canada would see another surge of asylum seekers once the border reopens, Silcoff believed that’s unlikely under the new White House administration. Since Joe Biden became president in January, Washington has reversed many Trump-era anti-migrant, anti-refugee policies.

Temporary protected status has been granted to migrants currently in the U.S. from major refugee source countries such as Haiti, Venezuela and Yemen. In June, the U.S. restored the possibility of asylum protections for women fleeing domestic violence in other countries as well as for families targeted by violent gangs.

“It’s a different climate,” said Silcoff. “It’s hard to know what the future would bring but we know that Canada is able to handle fluctuations in numbers of asylum seekers.”

During the pandemic, Ottawa has also rolled out several measures that involved asylum seekers and failed refugees in Canada, such as releasing immigration detainees with less serious immigration violations and suspending deportations at the peak of the pandemic.

Another positive during this global public health crisis is the special program that grants permanent residence to asylum seekers who work in health care and essential jobs during the pandemic, said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

“So there have been some good parts,” she said.

In June, the immigration department also announced plans to expedite the processing of permanent residence applications of people who have been granted asylum in Canada, with a new target of 45,000, up from 23,500.

That commitment will help someone like Mohammed Jadallah, who fled to Canada for asylum from Gaza via the U.S. in 2018 and has since been separated from his wife and five children.

When war erupted between Hamas militants in Gaza and Israel earlier this year, with bombs raining down on his homeland, the 41-year-old Toronto man could only console his family helplessly from afar, on a computer screen.

Although he was granted protected status in Canada in October and immediately applied for permanent residence, the process was set to take an average of 39 months.

“There was an airstrike in our neighbourhood in Rimal. The building that’s just 200 metres from ours was flattened,” said Jadallah, a rebar detailer, whose family struggles with food and fuel shortages.

“As a parent, you try to protect your children. It’s so hard when you can’t do nothing for them.”

Until he receives his permanent residence, Samaa, 37, and their children — Nidal, 15; Asil, 12; Mustafa; 9, Ali, 8; and Yusuf, 5 — cannot join him in Canada.

Dench said that speaks to the need to do away the bureaucracy that requires accepted refugees to go through all the hoops to apply for permanent residence.

“It will cost us less if we give them permanent residence more quickly because then it makes it easier for them to upgrade their skills and to reunite with their family and to contribute more fully,” she said. “If you’ve been vetted and accepted as a refugee, you should be automatically a permanent resident.”

During the pandemic, the resettlement of overseas refugees in Canada has also come to a halt due to border closures and the reduced processing capacity by the International Organization for Migration, the UN and local Canadian visa posts — except for the most vulnerable who require emergency resettlement.

As of the end of October, only 2,879 resettled refugees landed in Canada since March 18, 2020, including 1,603 sponsored by community groups, 1,262 by the federal government, and 14 through a joint public and private sponsorships. Another 40 arrived under the “urgent protection” program.

In 2021, Ottawa has set a target to bring in 36,000 sponsored refugees, but only 1,630 had arrived by the end of April, according to a report by Reuters. Last year, the target was 31,700 but only 9,200 made it, leaving 22,500 spots unfilled.

Critics ask: Will Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino allow the unused spots to carry over in coming years when international travel is back to normal?

“It’s 65,000 who are in the queue essentially, who are waiting to travel,” said Brian Dyck, national migration and resettlement program co-ordinator of the Mennonite Central Committee Canada. “And that queue has never been longer than now. Their applications are going in but there are none that are going out.”

Those who managed to come during the pandemic, he said, had their proof of permanent residence in hand on or before March 18, 2020.

While the task to bring in a huge number of sponsored refugees in a short time appears daunting, Dyck said that’s doable, as shown in how Canada and Canadians successfully brought in 25,000 Syrian refugees in a matter of months in 2015 and early 2016.

“I think that the government has learned how to use a variety of networks to process sponsorship applications in different ways,” he noted..

And there’s been no shortage of public support during the pandemic, said Dyck, whose office has continued to receive a lot of inquiries from people looking to sponsor refugees even without promoting the idea.

Torontonian Marika Elek and her sponsorship group, Beach Cares, submitted a private sponsorship application in January to bring a Syrian family of five to Canada from Lebanon.

“I remember what happened in 2015 and 2016 when there was a real surge of refugees coming in, and people managed to handle that,” said Elek, whose family was sponsored here by the Canadian government in 1957 from Hungary when she was a girl.

During the pandemic, she and some 350 sponsors got together online and officially launched The Private Refugee Sponsor Network to “connect, learn and share” information and provide free training to help each other problem-solve in anticipation of the border reopening.

“We have people who are ready to welcome them.”

Source: As Canada eases COVID-19 border restrictions, advocates say refugees’ travel is ‘essential’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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