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Last June, as India’s health care system struggled under what was then the world’s worst COVID-19 crisis, the Canadian government was trying to deport Jatinder Singh.

Singh had come to Canada seeking asylum in 2017, settling in Montreal, where he had a cousin nearby. He began building a new life for himself and found work as a long-haul truck driver. Like other front line workers, Singh showed up throughout the pandemic, transporting food and other basic goods while many stayed safe at home.

He would have continued in that essential work were it not for a minor accident on an Ontario highway in March 2021. The event was innocuous: another vehicle hit Singh’s truck. Then police arrived at the scene. They discovered that Singh’s asylum claim had been rejected in 2019, detained him, and handed him over to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Singh spent some time in an Ottawa jail before being transferred to an immigration detention centre in Laval—a facility that saw many detainees test positive for COVID-19 and where many have gone on hunger strikes to protest unsafe conditions.

Singh finally managed to get released, pending a judicial review of his case, by agreeing to pay for an ankle monitor and be subject to a nightly curfew. It was, according to his cousin Kamaldeep Kaur Hundel, a huge burden on the whole family. Hundel lives in Montreal with her husband and their young child. The conditions made it impossible for Singh to continue working, and the family lost one of its breadwinners. They filed a federal appeal to Singh’s deportation order, but it was an appeal he ultimately lost.

Returning to India in normal circumstances would have been dangerous, Singh says. His brother had been the target of violence in the past due to his participation in the high-profile farmers’ protests. But Singh had another, more pressing concern as he fought his deportation order: by that point, COVID-19 had killed more than 300,000 and infected more than 25 million people in India. Today, less than 60 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. “There is no health care over there,” Singh said via his cousin, who interpreted the conversation, just days before his scheduled removal. “People are dying for lack of oxygen.”

Singh’s case and thousands of others like it have raised larger questions about the ethics of deporting individuals during a global pandemic. On June 15, as Singh was placed on a plane and removed from the country, the federal government considered the rapidly spreading Delta variant so dangerous that it had suspended all incoming commercial and private flights from the country in April—flights would not resume until the end of September.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government repeatedly advised people to avoid all nonessential travel—a directive it continued to push after the arrival of the Omicron variant. Yet, according to the CBSA, since the beginning of the health crisis, the agency has deported more than 18,000 people to more than 150 countries, including locations where COVID-19 has proven particularly dangerous due to high rates of infection and the general lack of access to both medical treatment and vaccines. Lawyers and advocacy groups say these removals are not only unnecessary but have also targeted many front line workers like Singh, who risked their health to keep our society running during the worst of the pandemic. So why have the deportations continued?

Since May 2020, the United Nations Network on Migration has urged governments not to deport migrants during the pandemic. “Forced returns can intensify serious public health risks for everyone—migrants, public officials, health workers, social workers and both host and origin communities.” Returnees can also face violent discrimination, stigma, displacement, and extreme financial hardship as a result of the health crisis, the group warned.

Like many other countries, Canada announced a pause on most deportations at the outset of the crisis. Then, in November 2020, amid a then unprecedented surge of COVID-19 infections across the country, the CBSA suddenly announced that it had resumed enforcing removals of all people it has deemed inadmissible.

Organizations working with migrants and asylum seekers immediately decried the decision. In a letter, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) warned then minister of public safety and emergency preparedness Bill Blair and CBSA president John Ossowski that the policy change “places deportees, including elderly individuals and those with underlying health conditions, in harm’s way at a time when the government is telling everyone else to stay home to stay safe.” A separate letter from the chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration-law section cautioned that “resuming removals is likely to exacerbate the pandemic and result in additional infections and fatalities.”

Given that migrants facing removal often have families in Canada, such deportations would also have particularly devastating consequences for children, warned the Canadian Council for Refugees, noting that kids would be negatively affected if one of their parents was forced to leave the country in the midst of the pandemic. In addition, the pandemic made it more difficult for those facing deportation to access legal counsel or obtain the type of documentary evidence required to challenge a removal order. Even before the crisis, it was often a major hurdle to find and retain a lawyer and quickly collect the evidence needed to support a deportation deferral. And pandemic restrictions made it more difficult to obtain relevant evidence from experts, including medical evidence and documentation of conditions in migrants’ home countries.

Meanwhile, legal offices’ increased reliance on remote-meeting technologies during the pandemic has made the process more challenging—particularly for people with limited access to the necessary technology and those who rely on interpreters to effectively communicate and exchange documents with their council. “In the current context, we are gravely concerned that these unavoidable limitations on access to justice for persons facing removal will raise the risk of a miscarriage of justice taking place,” cautioned Legal Aid Ontario president and CEO David Field in a letter to Blair and Ossowski.

Despite these concerns, the CBSA upheld its decision. In a letter responding to Field, Scott Harris, vice-president of the agency’s intelligence and enforcement branch, argued that many governments have opened their borders and “research has shown that air travel is safe.” Harris also claimed that “access to counsel is not the same obstacle it may have been during the initial stages of the pandemic.”

“CBSA is very much operating as if we’re not in the middle of a pandemic,” wrote Omar Chu from Sanctuary Health, a Vancouver-based organization that works with many nonstatus migrants, in an email. “Families in our network are very afraid.”

Between March 11, 2020, when the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and February 21, 2022, the CBSA says it enforced 18,418 removals to at least 150 countries. A CBSA spokesperson explained in an email that most were “administrative removals”—meaning staff found evidence that someone previously listed had left Canada on their own, without notifying the agency. Yet Canada also actively deported 7,119 people during the crisis, according to CBSA data, including 748 individuals from India and neighbouring Pakistan. Moreover, while Canada currently bars most unvaccinated foreigners from entering the country, “current federal regulations do not prevent removal of unvaccinated individuals to other countries,” a CBSA spokesperson said in an email.

Such deportations can be a “tremendous risk,” according to Meb Rashid, medical director of the Crossroads Clinic at Women’s College Hospital and an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s department of family and community medicine. While health authorities have repeatedly urged people to physically isolate in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, “it becomes very hard to do that when somebody takes you and drops you in another part of the world,” Rashid says.

Rashid, whose patients include many asylum seekers, observes that facing deportation was a devastating experience for people even before the pandemic. He has witnessed the mental health toll of such removal orders. “Many are fleeing really horrible circumstances,” he says. “There’s tremendous mental health stressors on people.”

Andrea Cortinois, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s human biology program and the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, explains that many people invest everything they have in their efforts to migrate and thus don’t have much to go back to. Many migrants find low-paying front line jobs, which increases their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Those without status also face the constant threat of being apprehended by immigration authorities and held in detention centres, where there is a very high risk of exposure. “Anything that puts them in a more extreme situation obviously has an impact on their health,” Cortinois says.

For refugee lawyer and former CARL president Maureen Silcoff, the ongoing deportations are symptomatic of a deeper problem with the governance of the CBSA—the only major Canadian law enforcement agency that lacks an external oversight body. While CARL is no longer calling for a generalized suspension of deportations, “the removal of immunocompromised persons, as well as those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, should be paused due to the health risks those persons face upon removal,” Silcoff wrote in an email. “In addition, removal to countries with very low vaccination rates remains a concern.”

Other groups are going further, arguing that people like Singh shouldn’t be facing deportation in the first place. Amy Darwish, a member of the migrant-justice organization Solidarity Across Borders, says the federal government should create a comprehensive, ongoing regularization program and give status to all migrants.

In August 2020, the Trudeau government announced a new immigration program that offers a pathway to permanent residency for asylum claimants working in certain front line occupations during the health crisis. Yet, for many, the program was too little, too late. The “guardian angels” program has been faulted for excluding many nonstatus workers—such as those who work in shops and shipping—and focusing solely on those directly related to health care. The government reported that just 380 people had been granted permanent residency through the program between December 2020 and May 2021, and the program expired last August. “We need a more permanent, ongoing regularization program so that nobody is living in fear of being deported,” says Darwish.

In an email, a CBSA spokesperson stated that the agency is able to undertake such removals in a “responsible manner.” “Those being removed have either exhausted or chosen not to pursue further legal recourse and have no legal right to remain in Canada.” According to the CARL letter, the agency has also cited the growing availability of vaccines as a justification for resuming deportations even though access remains a major issue in many countries.

Deportations are never justifiable, says Darwish. And, though it may now be too late for those who, like Singh, have already been deported, she believes it’s not too late to change a policy that is not only dangerous but cruel as well.

Isabel Macdonald
Isabel Macdonald is a researcher and writer based in Montreal. A postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa's Centre for Law, Technology, and Society, she works as a research coordinator for the SSHRC-funded Global Journalism Innovation Lab and as a researcher at McGill University's Centre for Media, Technology, and Democracy.