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Canadian Rights Groups Say Emergency Measures No Longer Necessary For Asylum-Seekers

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

During the Trump administration, more than 50,000 people crossed from the U.S. into Canada to request asylum. At the start of the pandemic, the two countries limited travel across the border in both directions to slow new COVID cases, and Canada began turning those asylum seekers back to the U.S. Now Canadian human rights groups say these emergency measures introduced nearly a year ago are no longer justifiable. Emma Jacobs reports.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Last October, Apollinaire Nduwimana walked across the border from northern New York and turned himself in willingly to Canadian police. What he didn't know was that Canada had changed its rules because of the pandemic and he wouldn't be allowed to stay and apply for asylum. Canadian authorities told him they had to turn him over.

APOLLINAIRE NDUWIMANA: I told them, no, don't send me to United States. America want to send me back to Burundi. I will die. And when I was crying, police took me by force, and they handcuffed me.

JACOBS: Nduwimana says he fled Burundi after exposing government misconduct and came to the United States with the hope of reaching Canada. Since he was turned around, he's been held in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center outside Buffalo. He says he even spent weeks in an isolation unit.

NDUWIMANA: You cannot see nobody, when you cannot call, where you cannot even take shower.

JACOBS: He's met others in detention who've ended up there the same way. One was deported in December. The U.S. has been detaining and deporting some of these asylum seekers despite assertions by Canadian politicians last spring that it was very unlikely the U.S. would do so. Then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said Canada didn't want to see anyone deported to dangerous situations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER CHRYSTIA FREELAND: It continues to be important for Canada to have assurances that that would not happen.

JACOBS: Refugee rights groups say they were assured in private by Canadian officials that these guarantees had been made, but U.S. and Canadian agencies won't confirm this. From March of last year through mid-January, Canada turned back more than 280 asylum seekers. It's impossible to know what's happened to all of them. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says they don't keep statistics but can hold anyone without legal status.

JAVIER: (Speaking Spanish).

JACOBS: Javier, who asked NPR not to use his full name because he fears gangs in his home country of El Salvador, tried to cross into Canada in September. Like many others who try to cross this way, he was afraid of being deported from the U.S. over problems with his immigration status. Instead, the Canadians turned him back, and he's now in detention with Nduwimana, the Burundian asylum seeker.

JAVIER: (Speaking Spanish).

JACOBS: "It broke my heart," the 24-year-old says, "because I felt like I didn't have a way out." In other cases, U.S. border agents let asylum seekers go, often families with children. Even so, they can still find themselves in the precarious situation of being stranded at the border, says Diana Wardell, a volunteer in upstate New York.

DIANA WARDELL: They spend everything to get to the border and then get turned around and really don't even have taxi money. They have no resources.

JACOBS: For all these reasons, Canadian advocates argue that Canada should let these asylum seekers in, just as they have with some other groups.

KATE WEBSTER: We could make exceptions for essential travel for truckers, for NHL hockey players, for certain celebrities. And we couldn't find a way to have 200 people enter the country and quarantine.

JACOBS: Attorney Kate Webster is advocacy chair for the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers. She has represented Nduwimana, Javier and six other detainees. She says Canada has already come up with safe quarantine protocols since last spring to readmit certain categories of refugees. And now that the government has seen what's happened to asylum seekers it's sent back to the U.S....

WEBSTER: One cannot justify the closure anymore, not knowing what we know, not knowing what's at stake.

JACOBS: In December, she says Canada's immigration minister granted five of her clients special permission to enter Canada, including Nduwimana and Javier. ICE told NPR it doesn't have a legal way to release them from custody. So the prospects for these two men ever reaching Canada remains far from clear.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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