Borders and Bubbles

COVID-19 and Cultural Studies

Banner image featuring a spray painted graffiti mask and the series title.

Shauna Labman

August 11, 2020

Will my children even be silent enough while I record this? Will the neighbourhood children who run the street all day in this extended summer interrupt me? The dryer is running, the stairs creak, my partner speaks too loudly when he is on the phone. These are my COVID struggles as I try to write about balancing parenthood and work. Balancing—an academic friend posts a picture of her sitting on the edge of her closed toilet with her laptop as her young daughter bathes nearby—balancing. But really that is nothing new and only now exaggerated by the closeness. I have found time because I have been privileged to find work in my hometown and my parents take my children for prolonged care. My hometown. The town where I was born, grew up, left and returned. A return for work that sits in contrast to the work I do.
The work I do is on refugee protection and the expanse between a voluntary commitment to resettlement and the legal obligation of non-refoulement. While the pandemic turned my world into a bubble it also made the movements I study stand still. Refugee resettlement was temporarily suspended by the UNHCR and IOM between March and June.  In Canada, two-thirds of our resettlement program is through private sponsorship, which allows sponsors to name whom they wish to sponsor and use the program as a form of family reunification. Families anxiously awaiting an arrival that had already taken years too long are forced now to wait longer and with a new and additional threat to their hopes for happiness. The virus that has brought my children too constantly close to me has kept others cruelly apart. 
Sponsorship can also be a means for Canadians to express their humanitarianism through the sponsorship of strangers. When I sponsored a refugee family three years ago, it was through the initiative of my friend, who invited our family to join her family, her extended family, and others even she did not know to make the application. The idea of making new friends locally, meeting regularly, and putting our money toward helping bring a family to safety was an easy choice to make in the time before bubbles. Sponsorships have resumed since the suspension was lifted and those who were waiting in uncertainty when the pandemic hit may now begin to arrive, but will new applications continue? 
What makes the future of resettlement uncertain is that it is voluntary. The government or Canadian citizens or both can simply decide that a pandemic is not the time for this extended outward action. We have not yet seen this.  Canada currently takes pride in being the world leader in refugee resettlement, but this renown speaks more to the diminished commitment to resettlement elsewhere, particularly in the United States, the former world leader, where numbers have plummeted under the Trump Administration. Things change. Given the economic volatility of the current crisis, will Canadians be as financially able and willing to raise funds and sponsor refugees, or will they be focused on caring for their own families and already arrived refugees likewise struggling with the effects of the pandemic? If sponsors do less, will the government do more?
While resettlement is voluntary, optional, a choice, the government of Canada has a legal obligation in domestic and international law to non-refoulement, which means they cannot send refugees away who make it to Canada on their own to claim asylum. But it is harder to get to Canada, a country surrounded by three cold oceans, when few planes are flying and most non-essential travel is halted. Canada and the U.S. also agreed to close their land border to non-essential travel in March and have continuously extended the agreement throughout the summer. This barricading of the border prevents most asylum seekers from crossing into Canada the same way it is preventing long-distance lovers from seeing each other and grandparents from meeting newborn grandchildren. The land border had never been a particularly meaningful division for most Canadians prior to the pandemic but had been limiting refugee crossings for close to two decades as a result of the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. which requires most refugees to make their claim for asylum in the first country they reach—and most of the time that is the U.S. But on July 22 the Canadian Federal Court ruled that sending refugee claimants back to the U.S. under the Safe Third Country Agreement violates their right to liberty and security protected by Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (I said no to an interview on this point because I couldn’t quite find enough quiet time for a careful read of the decision first.  Again, my small problems).
My bubble is still closed pretty tightly, but as my students begin to Zoom into it come September, I hope for other movement as well—specifically that the government will act swiftly to respond to the court’s ruling, as opposed to appealing it, and there will be movement on refugee resettlement for us to celebrate. I hope that sponsorships continue or that citizens find ways to reimagine welcome to those who have already arrived and are now navigating their new home while being told to stay home. And I hope that all families who are feeling the powerful division of borders for the first time, the lack of control, the uncertainty, the stuckness, and the fear, may recognize that these feelings are nothing new for refugees.

Shauna Labman is Associate Professor of Human Rights, Global College. She is the author of Crossing Law’s Border: Canada’s Refugee Resettlement Program (UBC Press 2019) and co-edited Strangers to Neighbours: Refugee Sponsorship in Context (MQUP 2020).

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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