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Ottawa presses U.S. to abide by prohibition of refoulement of asylum seekers at shared border

Tuesday, March 31, 2020 @ 9:09 AM | By Cristin Schmitz

Canada is asking the Trump administration for assurances that the U.S. will not illegally deport to persecution in their homelands asylum seekers who are denied entry by Canada at the shared American border, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says.

Freeland told reporters at the daily COVID-19 briefing in Ottawa March 30 that the federal government is still in talks with Washington over questions raised about the possible refoulement of refugee claimants amidst the COVID-19 crisis, during which both the U.S. and Canada are turning away refugee claimants from their shared border.

News outlets have quoted Michael Niezgoda, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as stating that if an “alien” cannot be returned to Mexico or Canada, his agency would work with “interagency partners to secure return to the alien’s country of origin and hold the alien for the shortest time possible.”

International laws, including the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, bar the forcible return of persons to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

Refoulement “is an issue that is of tremendous concern to Canada,” Freeland told reporters in French, noting that she, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, and Canada’s ambassador in Washington “have all had conversations relating to that issue and the discussions are ongoing.”

Freeland did not answer how many refugee claimants coming from the U.S., who were turned away at the Canadian border since it was recently closed to all but essential travel, have been returned home to their countries of origin. “This is one of the questions that we’re asking right now,” she explained.

At an earlier press briefing, Freeland said that the issue is being discussed on an urgent basis with the United States.

“It is very important to Canada to abide by our international commitments, very much including when it comes to refugees,” she said March 27. “We are aware of the problems of refoulement and it was, and continues to be, important for Canada to have assurances that that would not happen to people returned to the United States.”

Asked whether her government would consider reversing its recent decision to bar refugee claimants arriving from the United States at unauthorized points of crossing, should there be evidence that the United States is going to deport those people, Freeland responded “I always think negotiations are best conducted in private, and I don’t like dealing in hypotheticals. But let me be clear about Canada’s position, which is it is important for us to abide by our international commitments when it comes to the treatment of refugees and we are very alive to concerns around refoulement.”

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