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Life as a migrant in the time of COVID-19

Monday, April 06, 2020 @ 8:31 AM | By Liam Turnbull


Liam Turnbull %>
Liam Turnbull
The experiences of asylum seekers, temporary workers, international students, the undocumented and other migrants in Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic have thus far been largely ignored by the government. Given that many of these individuals and their families have precarious immigration status, or are undocumented entirely, they disproportionately face severe limitations on their ability to ensure their survival. They may also be unsure of what supports are legally available to them and how certain laws apply to their specific situation.

Knowing their own legal rights during this unprecedented lockdown in Canada has therefore become increasingly important. Knowledge of their rights, however, is not enough. Governments can take a number of steps to protect the health and safety of migrants. In the process, officials will also be protecting the health and safety of all Canadians as well.

An immediate concern is access to health care. Those who currently lack immigration status may second-guess their ability to seek medical treatment/testing due to fears of being detained or even deported. It is essential that undocumented migrants are guaranteed medical assistance if they need it by provinces and territories and assured by Canadian officials that seeking such help will not impact their status in Canada. This health-care access must not be restricted only to COVID-19 related services but extended to universal health-care access.

Immigration detention is another massive concern. Immigration detainees, who are forced into close proximity and have poor access to hygiene products and medical care, face terrible risks during this pandemic. If they were sent to immigration detention as a result of seeking medical attention for COVID-19 symptoms, for instance, the virus could further spread among that population. Even though Canada has halted most deportations for the time being, COVID-19 transmission could still occur within immigration detention centres that are often overcrowded and under resourced.

Authorities should release immigration detainees who pose no public safety risk and prioritize the release of those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, including immunocompromised, persons with disabilities and the elderly. Any deportations that are still occurring will increase the risk of global transmission as well.

Migrants will likely face heightened economic repercussions that will be a lot more pronounced than the financial issues facing similarly situated Canadians. Many migrants are working in the restaurant, sex work, construction labour or other industries that are affected by Canada’s lockdown measures. Yet individuals without immigration status may not qualify for the federal or provincial governments’ emergency COVID-19 financial benefits. Without a stable income nor government support, it’s difficult to see how they can survive without resorting to crime or other illegal/illicit means of supporting themselves and their families. The government can step in to ensure that individuals with precarious immigration status and their children are not left behind. They could be provided with at least some minimal financial support to prevent them from feeling forced to engage in illegal activities or break quarantine to survive.

There is now more than ever a need to ensure that these individuals know their rights while navigating Canada’s immigration system and are supported along the way. As a clinic student at the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program, I have worked in collaboration with community partners to develop a “Know Your Rights” deportation guide for migrants in Toronto. Through this process and digesting the gravity of the impact of COVID-19 on those with precarious status, it has become clear that proactive government action is needed to support some of Canada’s most vulnerable families during one of the most dire crises in recent memory.

Liam Turnbull is a second-year JD student at the Faculty of Law, University of Toronto.

Photo credit / mirsad sarajlic  ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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