Fighting on all fronts – a human rights catastrophe

The pandemic has exacerbated the existing crisis that migrants live in as a result of being denied basic rights and protections.

By Syed Hussan, Executive Director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change . .


Syed Hussan is the Executive Director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change and a member of the Migrant Rights Network.

Originally published in THE MONITOR.


For us migrants, 2020 was a human rights catastrophe, which continues in 2021. We’ve been on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis, doing the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs: growing and delivering food, cleaning buildings, and caring for children and the elderly. At the same time, many of us have been excluded from even basic health care and income support during a pandemic.
At least one in 23 people in Canada—over 1.6 million people—are migrants on work or study permits, refugee claimants, on parent and grandparent super visas, or are undocumented. Many are racialized, working-class people.

Faced with multiple lockdowns, many migrant and undocumented people have lost and continue to lose work and wages. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the programs that have followed, which have allowed some affected by pandemic layoffs to make ends meet, needed a valid Social Insurance Number (SIN) to access, something that undocumented people and many migrants do not have. Tens of thousands of migrants on study and work permits weren’t able to renew their SINs because of permit processing delays by Immigration Canada. The result was starvation, for many.

Lilliana Trejo, an undocumented mother who works as an aide in a long-term care home, articulated what many are facing: “If we don’t die of COVID-19, we will die of anxiety, depression, isolation, and hunger.” Queen, a care worker who worked at a residential care home until she was diagnosed with COVID-19, had this message: “My mind is on survival mode with every breath I take. Wondering how and if my body is gonna cope with this. If I don’t work, I don’t qualify for any of the prepared packages the Prime Minister speaks of because I don’t have a Social Insurance Number. I have no family here; it would depend solely on me to cope with my well-being. I have to keep working.”

According to the last census, 42.9% of non-permanent residents are low-income, compared to 12.5% of non-immigrants, and 17.9% of immigrants. Non-permanent residents are, thus, extremely vulnerable to economic crises. Yet, no federal or provincial supports were made available, despite multiple requests and proposals by migrant-led organizations.

The pandemic exacerbated the existing crisis that migrants live in as a result of being denied basic rights and protections.

Those who have continued to work have done so in gravely dangerous conditions. After long-term care homes, the largest outbreaks have been at low-waged workplaces. Migrant farm workers in congregate work and living conditions faced multiple outbreaks. At least 1,600 were infected, and three died. Similar outbreaks have taken place in meat processing plants, warehouses and large factories. Migrant care workers, including nannies, long-term care and seniors’ care home employees, have faced a similar crisis, in addition to labour intensification and increased surveillance. Yet, no on-the-job protections exist for migrants who face deportation if they speak out against commonplace exploitation and abuse.

Even COVID-19 testing and treatment is not available to many migrants and undocumented people in many provinces. In places like Ontario, where all health care is meant to be accessible, many hospitals and facilities have continued to charge exorbitant fees to migrants seeking care. In Nova Scotia and Alberta, many migrants without a health card have navigated the pandemic without access to health care. The Migrant Rights Network is currently campaigning for free and accessible vaccines provision for all migrant and undocumented people.

In addition to these barriers, 2020 has seen a massive increase in racism. Anti-Asian racism spiked in January 2020 and has since expanded to all racialized migrants, as politicians target migrants as disease carriers to distract from their own refusal to enact safety protocols that would limit the virus’ spread and provide adequate income supports for people to stay home. Police have disproportionately targeted racialized migrants for violating COVID-19 by-laws. In PEI, for example, 22-year old Javan Nsangira, a Black international student with mental health needs, faced a seven-week jail sentence for failing to self-isolate.

But 2020 is also the year of our courage. In the face of hunger and sickness, migrants organized for justice. This is the year that:

  • Immigration detainees in a Laval detention centre went on hunger strike until they were released;
  • Migrant farm workers, in the face of outbreaks, walked off jobs, marched on their bosses, demanded their rights and refused to be silent, even when they were fired;
  • Migrant care workers refused to be locked up, surveilled and mistreated;
  • Migrant students began to organize as migrant workers, demanding rights and status, and successfully changed work permit laws stopping the mass deportation of 55,000 people;
  • Migrant sex workers, undocumented people, and others took action calling for status for all landed peoples on May 1, June 14, July 4, Aug. 23, Sept. 20, and Nov. 1, undeterred by detentions and deportations; and
  • Migrants won numerous changes to immigration and border policies to ensure our rights.

The Migrant Rights Network is Canada’s first and only cross-country alliance of racialized migrant-led organizations. In addition to our collective actions focused on federal changes, our nearly 50 member organizations in nine provinces are fighting for access to health care, social assistance, and workers’ rights at provincial and municipal levels, winning necessary changes. Together, we’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to distribute food and essential supplies to migrants struggling during the COVID-19 crisis.

Our central demand in 2021 continues to be fairness. We cannot have a fair society without equal rights, and equal rights are not possible until each resident in the country has full and permanent immigration status. We are calling on Canada to ensure full and permanent immigration status for all migrant and undocumented people and, going forward, full immigration status for all upon arrival.

The pandemic exacerbated the existing crisis that migrants live in as a result of being denied basic rights and protections. But our fight for justice extends beyond the pandemic. Full and permanent immigration status for all is a call for fundamental transformation of our economic and social systems away from profit and exploitation and towards social liberation and care. It is a rejection of the war, capitalist exploitation and climate policies that force migrants to leave our homes in the first place. Our struggle is for social and environmental justice for all.