Policy-makers must anticipate receiving people who are fleeing pandemic situations, and make sure immigration bureaucracy can keep up.

The decision by the Trump administration on April 22nd to effectively freeze immigration flows into the United States is the latest in a series of moves by that government to restrict immigration. In Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a partial border closure that has disproportionately impacted refugees and been criticized by several human rights watchdogs including Amnesty International. In recent months, Canada also temporarily halted the flow of refugees travelling here from the US, stranding many asylum seekers.

While Canadians may take some comfort in knowing that Canada’s federal government has attempted to limit the impact of the current border closure, we should nevertheless learn from these experiences and pause to consider how the current pandemic and future ones might impact refugee policy. How can policy-makers balance very real health concerns with their obligations to protect refugees, whose need has not dissipated and whose circumstances may well be increasingly precarious due to COVID-19 outbreaks in their countries of origin?

Intermittent border closures may be a necessary component of the government’s response to pandemics, but we have little experience with such measures in a globalized world. Just as open borders must be carefully managed to balance health and security issues against economic and human rights concerns, so must closed borders. Canada needs a comprehensive border closure strategy for our new and still-changing times.

When it comes to refugee policy, liberal democratic receiving states often face duelling pressures: upholding the rights of refugees while at the same time controlling their borders and processing applications competently and efficiently. The COVID-19 pandemic poses new challenges on both counts that policy-makers must respond to in the coming weeks and months. Yet these new challenges also foreshadow long-term trends that will persist for decades due to future pandemics and climate change: new types of refugees, and peaks and valleys of migration flows in response to intermittent border closures.

More reasons to flee

For years, wealthy democracies have responded to humanitarian crises by hosting refugees from conflict zones as well as sending development aid and peacekeepers to these areas. Devised in the wake of the genocides committed in Europe and Asia during the Second World War, the Refugee Convention was meant to provide protection for people fleeing persecution. However, the spectre of a global pandemic that threatens prosperity or even basic economic stability and requires the suspension of international travel is a serious game-changer for refugee protection.

Like climate change, pandemics pose a global risk that could disproportionately impact developing countries. Since February, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in many countries with world-class health care systems and high-functioning state infrastructures. One can only imagine how COVID-19 may critically weaken or even devastate public services in countries with high levels of conflict, socio-economic inequality or corruption. The World Health Organization is already projecting that African countries could be severely hit by COVID-19.

To meet this new challenge, the cabinet can do a lot with targeted development aid. However, given the long-term trajectory of forced migration, Canada’s policy-makers must anticipate receiving people who are fleeing displacement not because of persecution but because of pandemics, climate change and natural disasters that will make it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for people to return to their countries of origin.

The federal government should direct Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to identify a new category of potential refugee-sending countries: those in high-impact zones that have seen their public infrastructure collapse because of a pandemic or other crisis. As with previous refugee-producing crises, IRCC and GAC should consider collaborating with civil society groups to sponsor individuals from such high-risk zones as refugees to Canada or easing requirements for family reunification for Canadians with relatives from such places.

While the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act establishes a legal framework for accepting people escaping persecution, Canada has also extended protection to those fleeing other desperate situations, such as the refugees from a major earthquake that devastated Haiti 10 years ago. Furthermore, the government has already done research on the likelihood of people fleeing the effects of climate change and signed the United Nations Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, which requires signatory countries to “identify, develop and strengthen solutions for migrants compelled to leave their countries of origin due to slow-onset natural disasters, the adverse effects of climate change, and environmental degradation.” At present, this agreement has not been codified into Canadian law. The federal government led by IRCC should work with advocacy groups such as the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Association for Refugee Lawyers to update the existing legal framework to accept climate change refugees as well as those fleeing natural disasters and pandemics.

Managing waves of migration

Periodic border closures complicate flows of forced migration by incentivizing migrants to arrive in larger numbers while host countries’ borders are open. The implications for government agencies that handle immigration are significant. Managing administrative capacity — keeping visas and refugee claims running smoothly through the departmental machinery — is critical not only for carrying out policy goals but also to ward off negative political impacts that could undermine public support for hosting refugees. When governments are perceived to be losing control over immigration because of backlogs or bungling, it is not hard for critics of the government (including but not limited to far-right parties) to trigger public anger and anti-refugee sentiment. Despite Canada’s tradition as an immigrant nation, it is not immune from such public backlashes. The significant number of Canadians expressing frustration with the Trudeau government’s willingness to admit tens of thousands of asylum seekers from the US since 2017 is a case in point.

For this reason, ensuring that Canada’s immigration bureaucracy can keep up with surges in applications is essential — especially during pandemics, when the movement of people can easily provoke public fear and anxiety. Policy-makers could effectively manage increased administrative pressures by developing a strategy for closing and opening the border that involves civil society organizations who have been essential partners in helping develop and implement Canada’s immigration and refugee policies. Specifically, lawyers, NGOs and community organizations have provided channels for gathering information about refugee flows and developments in source countries that is critical for ensuring that policy is applied equitably.

In the past, the cabinet has commissioned independent reviews to assess the impact of procedural changes to immigration and refugee policy. The federal government should appoint a similar commission of policy experts from IRCC and civil society to study two core aspects of refugee policy: first, how immigration procedures can be improved to operate effectively during periods of open and closed borders; and, second, to what extent Canada’s existing settlement services and infrastructure need to be altered in order to comply with social distancing measures and adapt to the changed economy. Finally, IRCC and the Canada Border Services Agency should establish facilities and recruit medical staff at all ports of entry before the border is reopened so that they can screen all international travellers, including refugees.

Many of the administrative capacity and rights issues associated with refugee policy stem from governments and migrants of all sorts reacting to uncertainty. In developing a comprehensive border closure strategy, the government can work with civil society to reduce uncertainty and set clear expectations. An expansion of Canada’s categories of refugees is also needed, to acknowledge new global realities. No government may be able to predict what events will unfold, but Canada can utilize the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to update its immigration and refugee policies in order to meet similar challenges we are likely to face in the coming years.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: A Rohingya family wear masks to protect from the COVID-19 pandemic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on May 27, 2020. Shutterstock/By YuriAbas