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An asylum seeker crosses the border from New York into Canada followed by an RCMP officer at Roxham Road in Hemmingford, Quebec, March 18, 2020.Christinne Muschi/Reuters

The federal government is “urgently discussing” with its U.S. partners the possibility that the United States will deport asylum seekers Canada turns away at the border.

“It is very important to Canada to abide by our international commitments, very much including when it comes to refugees,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said during Friday’s ministerial briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ms. Freeland said Canada is aware of the dangers of refoulement – forcing refugees or asylum seekers to return to a country where they may be subjected to persecution – which is prohibited under international law.

“It was and continues to be important for Canada to have assurances that that would not happen to people returned to the United States. So this is an issue which we are urgently discussing now,” she said.

A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said that, in co-ordination with the Canadian government, individuals encountered along the Canada-U.S. border by the CBP or the Canada Border Services Agency will be returned to Canada or the U.S. through the nearest port of entry, according to an agreement reached last week.

“In the event an alien cannot be returned to Mexico or Canada, CBP will work with interagency partners to secure return to the alien’s country of origin and hold the alien for the shortest time possible,” Michael Niezgoda said in an e-mail.

He said each encounter will be handled on a “case by case basis,” depending on the person’s status in the U.S.

Refugee advocates said it is not clear if the U.S. is referring to asylum seekers seeking protection in the U.S. and entering from Canada or asylum seekers trying to enter Canada, who are being turned away at the border and will face possible deportation to their home countries. The CBP did not respond to a request to clarify its statement.

Toronto-based immigration and refugee lawyer Chantal Desloges said the CBP’s stated intention to send people back to their countries of origin has implications for Canada. She said Canada has obligations under international law not to send asylum seekers back to a situation where they claim their rights would not be respected or where they claim they would face persecution.

“If we then refused to adjudicate that [refugee] claim and we are actively handing someone over to another government that we know is going to send them back to their home country without a risk assessment, now our hands are dirty,” Ms. Desloges said.

Under the United Nations Refugee Convention, to which Canada is a signatory, article 33 on “refoulement” says that member states cannot send a refugee back to a situation where they could face persecution based on their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Last week, Canada stopped allowing asylum seekers to enter the country at unauthorized points of entry. More than 57,000 people have entered Canada through such border crossings since 2017, when U.S. President Donald Trump announced a crackdown on illegal immigration. The majority of crossings have occurred at a single entry point along Roxham Road in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que.

When asked whether Canada would consider reversing its policy and allow asylum seekers to once again enter the country at unauthorized points of entry, Ms. Freeland reiterated the government’s position: “It is important for us to abide by our international commitments when it comes to the treatment of refugees, and we are very alive to concerns around refoulement."

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said her organization is concerned that the U.S. has not given Canada any assurances on how it will treat people turned away at the border.

“Canada has been extremely negligent in terms of not taking seriously its obligations to its people who are seeking asylum," she said.

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