Coming or Going: The Impact of COVID-19 on Asylum Claims in Canada and the US

By Ray Mwareya

Canada Border Services Agency Border Inspection Sign (photo by Flickr user auvet, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In 2018, a tribunal judge in Canada told Simon, the elder of two siblings from the Democratic Republic of Congo the crushing words: “You story is unfounded. I must reject your asylum appeal.” Technically a departure order hangs over Simon’s head, but he cannot leave Canada. Now due to the COVID-19 outbreak, he must stay in Canada, even though he wants to depart voluntarily. His wish is to revamp a family farm in Congo and care for his widowed mother.

“I’m sick of twiddling my thumbs and not caring if it’s Saturday or Monday,” Simon, 39, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, says while cooking an egg in a dim apartment kitchen in Montreal. “In two years, I’ve saved $17,000 from jobs working as a caretaker for seniors. That’s enough to return home to Congo, start a chicken egg business, and look after my 72-year-old mother.”

Simon says he wants to go home rather than work under the table in Canada. But a failed asylum seeker like him cannot simply leave. The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) seized his Congolese passport when he applied for asylum two years ago, and it has since expired. To get his expired passport back from the Canada Border Services Agency, he has to fill out a form and wait. And now the delay is even longer thanks to COVID-19, which has closed most government offices in Canada. Once he has his expired passport back, he needs the Congolese embassy in Ottawa to issue him a new passport, but COIVD-19 has also halted consular services in Canada. “Actually, I fear approaching Congo embassy here in Canada, showing my face and submitting fingerprints. I’m opposed to the regime in Congo, and they may know I’m returning. I have to sneak back into Congo safely.”

If the emotional pull a dying mother is troubling Simon so much that he wants to leave of his own accord; much closer to Montreal, he has another emotional headache. Across the border in Boston, Massachusetts, Flavio, Simon’s younger brother, has exhausted his asylum appeals in the United States and has gathered his things to try his last hope north in Canada. But Flavio is also trapped. In March, on the eve of the COVID-19 lockdown, Canada struck a hasty deal with the US to close informal forest border crossings used by asylum seekers. Therefore, Flavio cannot move north to Canada to make a fresh asylum claim. “I am frozen in Massachusetts, fearful of even taking my puppy dog for sunshine walks, lest I breach lockdown rules, get picked up, and, who knows, be handed over to ICE deportation people.”

Before COVID-19, Flavio wanted to attempt to use the well-beaten path that thousands have pursued from the US into Canada. Since 2017, 45,000 people have requested asylum in Canada after entering from the US through forests and formal border crossings. CBSA says this is the highest number of refugee claims lodged since 1989.

The COVID-19 outbreak has placed extraordinary restrictions on the Canadian and US asylum systems. “Flavio’s situation potentially sheds light on hundreds of refugees in America for whom COVID-19 means a passage up north to Canada has been suddenly blocked,” says Yasin Kakande, African immigration scholar and author of the new book Why We Are Coming. Yasin adds that, “What Canadian and US immigration regimes could not do to asylum seekers through the law, they can now swiftly achieve in a backdoor way through COVID-19 blockages.”

The CBSA has an annual deportation target of 10,000 for asylum seekers whose claims have been rejected, like Simon. However, since 2017, Canada has only deported 865 people with rejected asylum claims. The deportation process is often dragged out because there are multiple options for appeals and embassies often refuse to cooperate with deportation orders. But now COVID-19 potentially means that for the foreseeable future only a small fraction of refugees will enter Canada or be returned, even if they ask to depart on their own.  

Refugees’ advocates have sharply criticized Canada’s blocking of asylum seekers entering or leaving the country on the basis of the pandemic. The secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, Alex Neve, warns that if asylum seekers attempting to enter from America like Flavio are apprehended and deported back to a country in Africa where they get tortured, Canada could be legally open to a penalty in terms of the UN refugee charter of “non-refoulement.”

For failed asylum seekers in Canada like Simon, this means that “you are here, but not here.” For those like Flavio sitting on the other side of the fence in the US hoping to seek new hope in Canada, the pandemic means, in the words of Kakande, “don’t come, you’re not wanted.”

Simon and Flavio may be facing contrasting asylum situations, but the COVID-19 outbreak means they are in a shared state of limbo.

Ray Mwareya received the Reporters Without Borders Rest and Refuge Scholarship 2016, lives in Ottawa, Canada, and is a writer for writing for Soule.LGBT magazine and Remedy Health Media.

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