Canadian COVID-19 policy reversal, shutting down US border to refugee claimants, breaches international law

Today’s news that the Canadian government will turn back refugee claimants attempting to cross the Canada-U.S. border is a shameful breach of international law that risks further endangering lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Amnesty International. 

“This is beyond disappointing and disgraceful,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. “Today’s news only serves to further inflame misconceptions and racism rather than offering reassurance and leadership. When it comes to refugees, Canada is stepping back at a time when we need to step forward.” 

Yesterday, the Canadian government announced it would allow refugee claimants to cross the border and spend 14 days in isolation, a move welcomed by Amnesty International and other organizations as a means of both preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic and protecting refugees. But in an unexpected and shocking reversal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced today that individuals crossing the border irregularly, including refugee claimants, will not be allowed into Canada and will be returned to the United States instead. 

“Over the past week, we have seen many restrictive government measures to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, some of which may be appropriate to uphold the basic rights to life and health, but this move does not meet that test,” said Neve. “With this 24-hour policy about-face, the Canadian government is now violating our important international obligations to refugees, at a time when concern about their vulnerability to COVID-19 mounts worldwide. Canada is better than this.” 


The United States has similarly closed its northern and southern borders. Amnesty International has decried the decision to close the US/Mexico border to refugees, highlighting that it will only deepen a grave human rights crisis.   

Media contact: Lucy Scholey, Media Relations, Amnesty International Canada (English branch), 613-853-2142,