Asylum-seekers cross the border from New York into Canada at Roxham Road Wednesday, March 18, 2020 in Hemmingford, Quebec
Punishing society's most vulnerable by closing borders like at Roxham Road isn't the way out of this crisis. Photo by Ryan Remiorz/CP

Our Moral Responsibility to Asylum-Seekers Doesn't Change During a Pandemic

The coronavirus has shown us the world is more connected than ever. Closing our borders to the most vulnerable won't change that.

Over five days last week, Canada’s border closed to everyone but citizens, permanent residents, and “essential” travellers.

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made clear that this temporary closure also applies to asylum-seekers who cross the Canada-U.S. border. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair justified the decision by characterizing them as “non-essential” travellers.

But isn’t seeking asylum in another country—having left behind an entire life because of war, persecution, famine—the most essential travel?


The government has acknowledged there’s no increased health risk from asylum-seekers, and yet closed our border to them anyway, fuelling the myth that foreigners are inherently dangerous.

While it’s a decision made jointly with the U.S., there’s a domestic political dimension that can’t be ignored. The Safe Third Country Agreement has been a source of explosive debate for years. A provision in the agreement allows asylum-seekers to cross into Canada from the U.S. at unofficial border crossings, as a way to override the rule that they must make their claim in the first safe country they arrive. While the Liberals have run an effective PR campaign shouting that refugees are welcome, last year they were in talks to close this “loophole.”

The coronavirus pandemic reignited the debate. Before these crossings were banned, Conservative Party leadership frontrunner Peter MacKay tweeted: “The government just confirmed they’re allowing illegal border crossings. Instead of turning people away, we’re letting them in and paying for their health care and quarantine. There are concerns about having enough equipment just for our own citizens. This needs to stop now.”

MacKay’s message conjures an image of hordes of people crossing into Canada—but that’s the numbers are in fact relatively small. Since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, the number of asylum-seekers coming from the U.S. has risen—from February 2017 to December 2019, we saw just over 54,000 asylum-seekers. As the COVID-19 crisis set in, the numbers at the most popular cross point, Roxham Road in Quebec, had dwindled—just 17 crossed over on Thursday, compared to a recent average of 48 a day, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.


To put this into context, Air Transat alone brought 10,000 people to Canada on Friday and Saturday. And the total number who returned between March 14 and 20? Over a million, according to the CBSA.

Many see Canada closing the border to asylum-seekers as a common-sense move—to protect Canadians. Part of this is a predictable human reaction, says Seyla Benhabib, a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale who has written prolifically about borders.

“When people are afraid, they turn inwards,” she says, adding that the uncertainty around how COVID-19 is transmitted is compounding that reaction. So what do governments do facing this fear?

“They try to do what is most visibly understandable and seems consequential for human beings—they close borders,” says Benhabib.

This tendency to take swift action is supported by a “hyper-nationalism” that takes over in times of crisis. Muhammad H. Zaman, a professor at Boston University who researches the quality of refugee healthcare, says this hyper-nationalism translates into countries “looking after only (their) own citizens, which means the people who have no political agency people who have no representation, no voice, no state are not even part of the equation.”

In the U.S., we’ve seen a hostile policy against asylum-seekers since Trump took office, flouting not only international law, but its own law in its treatment of asylum-seekers. The pandemic has only intensified this, with the U.S.-Mexican border now also closed to “non-essential” travel.


Benhabib isn’t surprised the pandemic has only pushed these restrictions further, but she’s bewildered by Canada’s response, saying instead of countries around the world learning best practices there seems to be a race “to the bottom.”

Trump’s “been looking for an excuse to keep justifying his racist policies,” says Benhabib. “But in the case of places like Canada, Germany, Spain, people have to resist this because there is no scientific basis for it.”

This idea of “stranger danger” is so ingrained in us it acts in a “perverse” way, she adds, herding people in camps where they certainly will be put at risk. We see this playing out in an immigration detention facility north of Montreal, where migrants have gone on hunger strike protesting the cramped conditions creating ripe conditions for the spread of coronavirus.

Canada's moral obligation to asylum-seekers

Those who support barring asylum-seekers rely on the same sentiment as MacKay: protect our own. It drips of a simplistic political strategy that pits a government’s duty to its citizens against its duty to migrants.

“This is a mistake to set up the interests of the domestic population against people who are in desperate need fleeing,” said Joseph Carens, a political science professor at the University of Toronto. The parallel he wants people to consider is the U.S. and Canada refusing Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis under the veil of economic grounds.

But that’s not the framework we should use to assess if our moral responsibility changes in the face of a pandemic. Carens proposes a more meaningful question: “Should (we) change the rules of who gets recognized as a refugee?” (While he asks this rhetorically, he answers it almost immediately with “that’s preposterous.”) The standard of weighing concerns of a domestic population and asylum-seekers would be a circumstance in which Canadians are even more under threat than those crossing into Canada—and it’s obvious that’s not the case.

Of course, this strict binary between those with and without a certain passport is part of the reason why it’s so easy for some to call for closed borders. Many believe that Canadians are exempt from government trampling on our rights. Ensconced in our liberal democracies, we may not think these rules apply to us—until they do. Every day we inch towards a war-time era revocation of civil liberties that could restrict our basic rights. Like freedom of movement. It’s the same freedom of movement that should be afforded to those escaping extreme hardship, especially in times of mass upheaval.

The pandemic that is ripping through nearly every country on earth has shown us, in many ways, borders aren’t real. Trying to enforce that they are by punishing society's most vulnerable isn't the way out of this crisis.

Follow Sadiya Ansari on Twitter.