Why Are People Getting Deported During a Pandemic? Episode 11 of The Deep Dive

The Canadian federal government has deported thousands of people during the pandemic. Isabel Macdonald examines why these deportations are happening

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The music for this episode is a licensed version of “This Podcast Theme” by InPlus Music. Additional music are licensed versions of “Stay Cool” by Loops Lab, “Podcast Intro” by InPlus Music, “Skydancer” by Scandinavianz, “With Regards” by Kevin MacLeod, “Inspired” by Kevin MacLeod, and “Leaving Home” by Kevin MacLeod.



SHEENA ROSSITER: Welcome to Deep Dive, a weekly podcast that takes a deeper look into the happenings at The Walrus.

I’m Sheena Rossiter.

ANGELA MISRI: And I’m Angela Misri.

On this week’s episode.

ISABEL MACDONALD: The United Nations Migration Network has urged governments not to deport people during the pandemic. So there’s a real question of why have deportations continued during the pandemic?

ANGELA MISRI: When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the Canadian government announced the suspension of most deportations. But despite its own travel advisories, warning that international travel remains a major risk due to the ongoing pandemic, Ottawa lifted its moratorium on deportations in late November. The Canadian government has deported thousands of people during the pandemic.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Isabel Macdonald is an independent journalist and researcher living in Montreal. And she has spoken with public health experts and asylum seekers, and she examines why these deportations are happening and the dangers of doing them amidst a pandemic.

ANGELA MISRI: Now let’s check out your interview with Isabel Macdonald.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Can you take us into why Canada is deporting people during the pandemic?

ISABEL MACDONALD: Well, I think that this is really the key question that we need to ask of our government, because since March of 2020, we know that Canada has strongly advised people to avoid international travel. The United Nations Migration Network has urged governments not to deport people during the pandemic, due to the very high risks that such deportations can present for people who are deported, for communities in which they live in countries like Canada and the countries in which they are being deported to. So there’s a real question of why have deportations continued during the pandemic?

During the initial months of the health crisis, Canada did heed the advice of international authorities like the United Nations, and suspend most deportations. However, some deportations continued, for reasons that the Canada Border Services Agency says are related to security, or people had a past criminal record. Those deportations continued on. But then in November of 2020, at a time when Canada was in the midst of a particularly deadly phase of the second wave of the pandemic, the Canada Border Services Agency completely removed this suspension that it had placed on most deportations, and proceeded on with the business as usual of deporting people from Canada.

SHEENA ROSSITER: What do the numbers look like, in terms of how many people are getting deported?

ISABEL MACDONALD: Well, the numbers are a little bit difficult to access, in part because of the way in which they are counted by the Canada Border Services Agency. What I was able to find out, through a series of informal access requests, in which I repeatedly was requesting data on how many people have been deported since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I was able to find out that, there are at least 7,000 people who have been actively deported by Canada, to at least 132 countries. The number of removals is actually much higher than that. But this includes people who the Canada Border Services Agency realized were no longer in Canada during the pandemic, because they had more time to sort of catch up on a backlog of people that they had identified and were targeting for removal.

And, when they went to find out where are those people, they realized they’re already no longer in Canada. So this is a category that is called administrative removals. And this accounts for thousands and thousands of removals that CBSA reports that it executed. But we really don’t know at what time did those people leave Canada, what were the conditions in which they left. But CBSA considers them administrative rather than enforced removals.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Are there people from certain countries that are getting deported more than others?

ISABEL MACDONALD: The people who seem to be deported with the greatest frequency during the pandemic were from Mexico. There were more than a thousand Mexicans who were deported. There were also a lot of Colombians, a lot of Indians. I mean, these are like in the more than 400 of each of these groups. There were also over 500 Americans who were deported. Most countries that I can think of, there are people who were deported there during the pandemic. There were also hundreds of Haitians. Haiti is actually a country to which Canada, in theory, is not supposed to deport people, because conditions in Haiti are seen as so volatile and dangerous. So, it was interesting to see that Canada was nonetheless deporting Haitians. Some of these deportations also were, in many cases, Mexicans or Haitians who were deported to the United States, which it’s important to note, actually never stopped deporting people during the pandemic at all. They just proceeded on, without even the kind of temporary pause that Canada initially put in place.

SHEENA ROSSITER: In your story, you speak about the case of Jatinder Singh, who’s originally from India, but he came to live in Montreal in 2017. Can you tell us a little bit more about who he is?

ISABEL MACDONALD: Jatinder had been living in Montreal since 2017. He had come over and joined his cousin, who had already been living in Canada, and who continues to live in Montreal with her husband and their two year old child. He began working as a truck driver in Canada. Back in India, he had worked as a farmer. But, given a need for people to transport essential goods in this country, he had begun a career as a truck driver. During the pandemic, when a lot of Canadians stayed home, he continued to work and was considered, as a truck driver, an essential worker during the pandemic.

Then in March of 2021, he got into a minor accident. While his truck was sort of pulled over, he was taking a break, another vehicle hit his truck. And so, this was a very minor collision that one wouldn’t have thought too much about, except that he no longer had a valid immigration status in Canada. And so, what would’ve just been a routine report to the police, turned into him being handed over to the Canada Border Services Agency, being incarcerated, initially in a jail in Ottawa, and then moved to an immigrant detention centre in Laval, a suburb of Montreal, where a lot of migrant detainees had been staging protests because conditions were, they felt, so dangerous, in the context of the pandemic. So Jatinder was held in this prison-like setting, which is not acknowledged formally as a prison, but his sort of his whole own world’s, known as immigrant detention. Eventually, he was able to get released, after his family agreed to pay $3,000 to instal an electronic surveillance device that was strapped around his ankle and couldn’t be removed.

SHEENA ROSSITER: We’ll be right back.

ISABEL MACDONALD: I’m Heather O’Neill, and I’m a fiction writer and essayist. My latest for The Walrus examines eating in films directed by women. I look at what feasting means metaphorically to women auteurs, and how it differs from those of male directors, and what it means for a woman to overeat. Fiction has always had a home at The Walrus, and you can support their work and mine, by subscribing to The Walrus at thewalrus.ca/subscribe.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Why was Jatinder seeking asylum in Canada in the first place?

ISABEL MACDONALD: What he told me is that his life was in danger in India, is in danger in India. Both his father, who is a politician, and his brother had already faced violence, due to his father’s political involvement. Jatinder feared that he too could face violence and his life was at risk. This is why, he said, he had come to Canada.

SHEENA ROSSITER: How complicated is it to get an asylum claim application approved in Canada? What’s the process?

ISABEL MACDONALD: It’s a very difficult process, because you need to provide what the government considers sufficient evidence, to prove that you would face political repression if you return to your home country. And, this criteria needs to fit. You need to have supporting documents, which are often very difficult for asylum claimants to obtain. It’s not always plausible to get a government that is oppressing you to furnish documentation that will allow you to make an asylum claim. It’s more difficult when people are coming from certain countries that Canada has good trade relations with. And, there’s also always a relatively short timeframe in which these documents need to be submitted. And also, you need to secure legal representation, in order to have a chance of your case succeeding. Securing legal representation and maintaining a relationship with an attorney is often something that’s very difficult for a lot of asylum claimants to do.

So there are a lot of cases of asylum claims that are rejected, just because people aren’t able to supply the necessary documents within this very tight timeframe, or they don’t have access to a lawyer to help them do it.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Since we’re still in a pandemic, is there a greater risk of deporting people during this time period, compared to pre-pandemic times or when there’s not a virus running rampant around the world?

ISABEL MACDONALD: Yes. I mean, this is precisely why the United Nations Migration Network has urged governments not to deport people during the pandemic. Because really, there are risks to many different people involved in this. There’s a risk to the migrants themselves. If you consider the guidance that we’ve been given by public health authorities since the beginning of the pandemic, that it is more dangerous to travel internationally, in the context of the pandemic, and then you consider the particular circumstances in which people who are deported are travelling, in which they often don’t have a home to go back to in the country that they fled or that they left, it’s very difficult to follow any kind of guidelines like sheltering in place.

People also, in the process of preparing to be deported, need to prepare documents. They need to say last goodbyes to people. So, this also, in the context of, we’re talking about, these deportations were resumed in November of 2020, at a time when governments across Canada were telling people that they needed to stay home, shelter in place, not circulate. There was also a very restricted access to a lot of government offices and to legal counsel as well. Much of the legal support people were able to get was happening through apps like Zoom, which poses real challenges for communication with people whose first language is not English or French when people are relying on interpreters. There were all kinds of challenges that augmented the risks, to both the people facing deportation and to their family members and friends and communities in Canada and in the country to which they were ultimately being deported.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Is there anything being done by the federal government to help resettle asylum claimants better, especially since we’re about to see more people apply from places like Ukraine?

ISABEL MACDONALD: I think we need to be aware of what the case of somebody like Jatinder Singh, who was deported to India in June of 2021. Often, people have put a huge amount of work into resettling themselves. So Jatinder had been working as a truck driver. He had family. He had friends in Montreal, where he’d been living since 2017. So I think that the question of resettlement programmes is an important issue, that it’s important for there to be supports for people who are trying to resettle to Canada, having fled horrible situations, like war, political oppression.

But in this particular case that I was looking at, and I imagine this, this is definitely the case for other people who were deported, who I’ve be in touch with since the beginning of the pandemic, often people actually were settled in Canada. They considered Canada their home, a new home, and they were part of their communities. They were contributing economically. And they were not given an opportunity, though, to continue to build their lives in Canada, even though they were contributing so much, often as frontline workers during the pandemic. And so, this is something that I think we really need to pay more attention to.

It seems like there should have been an opportunity for somebody like Jatinder, who was part of a community in Montreal, who was working as a truck driver, to be able to stay and continue to build the life that he had been building, and to continue his own resettlement process that he had put so much work into. And, there was a federal government programme that was announced in 2020, which provided an opportunity for frontline workers involved in the healthcare sector, who met certain, quite narrow criteria, to be able to acquire, to apply for a permanent residency status.

And so, this type of programme, I think, it shows how the government could approach this issue of how do we provide a pathway for people who are living in Canada with a precarious status, and already part of our communities and contributing economically, how do we provide a way for these people to be able to remain here and continue their lives in Canada and continue contributing to Canada socially and economically? Because it seems like, once people are already here, they’ve already shown that they can fill these gaps in Canada’s labour market, and they’re already part of communities, why would we then go and spend money deporting them? It makes very little sense.

SHEENA ROSSITER: Now let’s check out what Isabel Macdonald’s reading right now.

ISABEL MACDONALD: One book that I recently read, that I thought offered a really amazing fictional account of the challenges that are involved for people who are filing asylum claims in Canada, and that sort of dehumanization of some of our immigration policies and systems, like the system of immigrant detention, is a novel that was written a few years ago by Sharon Bala, who is a novelist, I believe, of Tamil descent, living in Newfoundland. And, this book offers the most humanizing and apt account that I’ve read of the extreme difficulties and hardships involved in filing an asylum claim in Canada. Yeah, and the dehumanising treatment that a lot of asylum seekers face at the hands of agencies like the Canada Border Services Agency. So, if people are interested in reading more about the issues that people like Jatinder Singh have faced, which are obviously even more scary in the context of a global pandemic, I would really recommend checking out Sharon Bala’s book.

SHEENA ROSSITER: That’s my conversation with Isabel MacDonald. The editor for her story is Daniel Viola. You can read her story “Why is Canada Deporting Front Line Workers in the Middle of a Pandemic” at thewalrus.ca right now.


JASON HERTERICH: I’m Jason Herterich, and here’s what we’ve been talking about, this week at The Walrus.Our Oscar plan included watching, gossiping on Twitter and sharing our past film and Oscar content from The Walrus accounts. It did not include getting ready for Will Smith to slap Chris Rock, and then win the Best Actor Oscar. But like his backstage support, we can roll with it. It brought to mind Daemon Fairless’ story on anger, violence, and how he copes with it. We’ve also got an episode of The Conversation Piece coming up in a few weeks, about toxic masculinity, featuring Jake Stika.

We had a going away party for our own Andrea Boyd, who is moving on to what sounds like a great gig at the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. So the position of Director of Partnerships and Sponsorships is up on our careers page at thewalrus.ca/careers.

And Canada is going to the World Cup for the first time since 1986. Not as long ago, but from our archives, Richard Poplak wrote about why soccer should be our national sport. And he may find some support for that this year.

As always, the links for all these articles can be found in the show notes for this episode.


SHEENA ROSSITER: Thanks for joining us on this week’s episode of the Deep Dive. It was produced by Angela Misri, and me, Sheena Rossiter. I also edited this episode.

Thanks so much to Isabel Macdonald for joining us this week.

Music for this podcast is provided by Audio Jungle. Our theme song is This Podcast Theme by Inplus Music. Additional music is Stay Cool by Loops Lab, and Podcast Intro by Inplus Music. You also heard “Leaving Home,” “With Regards,” and “Inspired” by Kevin MacLeod, provided by Film Music, and “Skydancer” by Scandinavianz.

With Regards by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4636-with-regards
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Inspired by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3918-inspired
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Leaving Home by Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/4708-leaving-home
License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

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Until next week when we take our next deep dive.

The Walrus Staff