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What does Canada’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic say about the Global Refugee Regime?

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

By: Magdalena Perzyna

The spirit of solidarity embodied in recent international agreements such as the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) (2018) and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) (2018) has been tempered by the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. States have turned inward, using the pandemic as an excuse to implement policies that exclude undesired migrants and refugees. While politicians and the media have come to rely heavily on a trusty medley of pandemic buzzwords and platitudes such as that ”COVID-19 does not discriminate,” and that “we are all in this together,” global policy responses with respect to asylum seekers as well as emergent data tell a different story.

The harsh and unprecedented policy responses taken by governments of the global North against vulnerable migrants, asylum seekers and displaced persons in the early days of the pandemic reflect an alarming exclusionary reflex. From the early days of the pandemic, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pleaded for countries not to close their borders to asylum seekers. Instead, the UNHCR and the World Health Organization (WHO) encouraged states to adopt a ”whole of society” approach that would see refugees and asylum seekers incorporated into national health care systems. However, despite urgent calls to maintain the integrity of the global refugee regime in light of the pandemic, most countries ignored the advice of international advocates and health professionals and shut their borders anyway.

According to the UNHCR, as of April 2020, 168 countries had fully or partially closed their borders, with about 90 countries making no exception for asylum seekers. This led countries to act in defiance of international law, including the turn-back of boats of Rohingya asylum seekers from Malaysia, the shut-down of search and rescue missions at sea in the Mediterranean, as well as the suspension of asylum processing and procedures in many countries in the EU. In the United States, apart from fanning the flames of xenophobia and accelerating deportations, including those of unaccompanied children, the Trump administration essentially eliminated the right to seek asylum at its Southern border, using the pandemic to achieve what immigration laws alone could not.

According to UNHCR data, 2020 will forever have the dubious distinction of having the lowest refugee resettlement levels in recent history, with only 15,425 refugees resettled in the first nine months of the year, compared to 50,086 over the same period in 2019. COVID-19 has become a risk multiplier for refugees, compounding existing drivers like war, conflict and climate change. Unable to avail themselves of protection from their governments, refugees are caught in an existential vacuum as the global refugee regime has ground to a halt.

Canada’s Response

While the last four years of sharing a border with Trump-led America may have lulled Canadians into self-satisfied superiority, Canada’s COVID-19 response is far from irreproachable. Despite initial plans to institute non-discriminatory screening and quarantine inland asylum seekers, the Government of Canada quickly reversed course. Instead, after consulting with American officials, government lawmakers used executive powers and issued an Order-in-Council that shut the border almost entirely to people seeking refugee protection in Canada when entering from the United States. This exercise of undemocratic executive power, utilized to fundamentally alter Canadian refugee policy in the absence of public consultation and debate is unprecedented. The decision was immediately condemned by the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International and other organizations for violating Canadian law, international Treaties and for deviating from established medical best-practices. These criticisms are particularly poignant given the juxtaposition of such closures with transparently neoliberal biases in keeping borders open to temporary foreign workers, international students and business travel.

Although turn-back orders to the US are theoretically temporary, in effect until borders are re-opened, academics such as Sean Rehaag have argued that COVID-19 has merely offered an opportunity to make a political problem to go away. Indeed, the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires asylum seekers to request refugee protection in the first safe country of arrival, has already been deemed unconstitutional by the Federal Court which found that the US cannot be considered a safe country for refugees. By turning back asylum seekers to the US, where they face deportation to the very countries where they face persecution, Canada is complicit in refoulement, violating a cornerstone of international law.

The Potential for Normative Change?

Although it is easy to succumb to cynicism, it is important to remember that moments of crisis that expose social inequality also provide opportunities for social change. To this end, there have been some positive steps taken by the Federal government that may offer precedents for transformational normative change looking forward.

1. Lawyers and advocates have long argued that confinement for the purposes of immigration detention is inhumane. In response to pandemic lock-downs, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has largely emptied out its detention centres, proving that finding alternatives to keeping detainees behind bars is possible and doable.

2. After hitting pause on the Refugee Assistance Program (RAP) in March, as of September Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) resumed resettling approximately 250 refugees each week through a coordinated effort with the UNHCR.

3. A re-evaluation of the meaning of ‘essential work’ has opened a new Guardian Angel Pathway to permanent residence for asylum claimants who provided direct patient care for a minimum of 120 hours between March 13 and August 14, 2020 as part of their job (or to their spouse if they died from COVID-19).

The international response to COVID-19 does not bode well for the global refugee regime. Countries in the global North have used the pandemic to adopt emergency laws and policies that have the potential to become entrenched when the world finally turns the corner and begins its journey toward the new-normal. However, the pandemic has also brought to light the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on marginalized groups, casting a spotlight on systemic inequality and discrimination. Recent advocacy by and on behalf of asylum seekers and migrants engaged in care work and temporary foreign workers employed in food production, demonstrate the potential for the discourse to shift from ”disposable” to “essential.”’. It will be up to civil society to open up spaces of possibility by challenging problematic common sense discourses and policies in the global North that privilege economic hierarchies of migrants and reproduce the conditions that create refugees in the first place.


*The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors

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