Canada's Ebola Ban is Not Xenophobic

The media fallout from Canada's Ebola-related travel restrictions continues. On October 31, the Canadian government instituted the following measures:

“Effective immediately, Canadian visa officers have temporarily paused the processing of visa applications from foreign nationals who have been physically present in a country designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as having widespread and intense transmission of the Ebola virus. Discretion will remain for the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to grant entry on a case-by-case basis in exceptional cases where travel is essential and in Canada's interest. Apart from those instances, temporary resident applications already in process that are affected by these new measures will be returned to the applicants.

Canadian citizens, permanent residents, foreign nationals currently in possession of a visa and foreign nationals who do not require visas will continue to be screened at ports of entry in Canada and will be subject to appropriate health screening and other measures under the Quarantine Act.

These changes do not impact Canadians currently in West Africa. All Canadians, including health-care workers, currently in West Africa will be permitted to travel back to Canada. The Government of Canada continues to advise against travel to countries designated by the WHO as having widespread and intense transmission of the Ebola virus.”

Over at, Julia Belluz has claimed that “Canada's Ebola visa ban is dumb, xenophobic, and illegal.” Some statements in this article need to be addressed.

Belluz claims that “Canada is a country built by and still composed mostly of immigrants.” This is incorrect. According to Statistics Canada, the official definition of an immigrant is as follows:

“Persons residing in Canada who were born outside of Canada, excluding temporary foreign workers, Canadian citizens born outside Canada and those with student or working visas.”

Based on the latest national census data, “in 2011, Canada had a foreign-born population of about 6,775,800 people. They represented 20.6% of the total population... In this analysis, the foreign-born population is also referred to as the immigrant population. Immigrant is a person who is or has ever been a landed immigrant/permanent resident. This person has been granted the right to live in Canada permanently by immigration authorities.”

Thus, it is incorrect to state that Canada is “still composed mostly of immigrants.” It is not. Only one-fifth of Canada's current population are “immigrants.”

There is also the claim of the Toronto Star newspaper -- and quoted with approval in the article -- that Canada is somehow in violation of international law by way of its Ebola-related travel restrictions: “[The International Health Regulations; IHR] require its 196 state parties to maintain disease surveillance, to share information on public health events of international concern, and to support less wealthy countries to meet these obligations. They strictly prohibit restrictions on travel or trade unless based on scientific principles, risk to human health or a World Health Organization recommendation.”

There is a key word in that last sentence: “or.” Assuming the quote is an accurate assessment of the IHR, this means a WHO recommendation is not required for Canada to still be in compliance with the IHR while enacting Ebola travel restrictions -- all that Canada is required to show is that there is a “risk to human health” for Canadians with regard to travel from the affected regions. And clearly there is. If there wasn't a risk to human health via travellers from West Africa, why are screening techniques being employed at the international scale for travellers from these regions? This fact alone proves the reality of a risk to human health (never mind the additional evidence that Ebola cases have made it out of West Africa and into developed nations, causing significant health risks and economic harm), thereby meeting the apparent criteria to allow travel restrictions under the IHR.

Consequently, if all that is required to justify a travel ban under the IHR is to reasonably show a “risk to human health,” this standard has easily been surpassed by the widespread international concerns over Ebola, the global community's corresponding acceptance of travel screening procedures, and the negative health impacts arising from Ebola cases outside West Africa.

Canada's decision has also been called “hypocritical” because it was on the receiving end of a travel ban -- which it was not happy with -- during during the SARS epidemic a decade ago. It is interesting that so many in and around the public health community today claim unequivocally that “travel bans don't work” and “quarantines unnecessarily stigmatize individuals,” and yet, it was the same WHO that “imposed travel bans on some affected countries to help stem SARS's spread... In some cities, hundreds of people were placed in home quarantine.” The SARS outbreak “only” led to 774 deaths and 8,096 cases by the time the outbreak ended. We are still very early in the current Ebola outbreak, and already the deaths and cases are well beyond the cumulative impacts of SARS.

By the time the WHO lifted the SARS travel ban on Toronto, the city had only “140 cases and 20 deaths reported” and it had been “20 days since the last cases of community transmission.” In comparison, West Africa currently has orders of magnitude more Ebola cases and deaths, and it is still raging out of control.

Moving on to the claim that Ebola travel restrictions “will discourage countries from being honest about disease outbreaks they're harboring,” this reasoning presents a classic logical fallacy which actually supports the Canadian government's cautious approach. If we cannot rely on nations to be honest about international health risks for fear of negative economic blowback, then we should not trust any of their claims -- no matter at what stage of the crisis we are at. In response, it is only prudent for other nations to assume the worst and enact responsible counter-measures as Canada has done. Arguing from the position of poorly defined and impossible to verify conditional honesty is not compelling. If we cannot implicitly trust these other nations, we must act defensively.

Finally comes the attempted trump card with respect to Canada's Ebola travel restriction policy: “It's xenophobic!” The cry of xenophobia gets trotted out far too often when international policy positions are weak. Here is the supporting argument at for Canada's supposedly xenophobic position on Ebola: “It's telling that the restrictions don't apply to Canadian travelers from West Africa but only West Africans themselves, as if Canadians in the region are incapable of spreading the virus.”

This is nonsense. As the press release from Citizenship and Immigration Canada clearly states, “Canadian citizens, permanent residents, foreign nationals currently in possession of a visa and foreign nationals who do not require visas will continue to be screened at ports of entry in Canada and will be subject to appropriate health screening and other measures under the Quarantine Act.” This explicitly acknowledges that Canadians in the region are fully capable of spreading the virus, and that they will be screened and treated “under the Quarantine Act” as required, but recognizes that Canada has an obligation to take its citizens back.

It is absurd to suggest that Canada should treat foreign travellers equivalent to its own citizens. Canadian citizens have a right to return to their nation. International travellers do not have a right to enter Canada. Imagine if Canada imposed a full travel ban on West Africa that excluded all Canadian citizens returning home as well. Consider the financial hardships of forcing Canadians to reside in a foreign country for an extended time frame (up to months or even years depending on the severity of the outbreak), which is in stark contrast to the West African travellers who are effectively being told to just stay home. Then consider the additional social, political, and legal implications of such a decision -- along with the increased health risks for those Canadians forced to stay in West Africa during an epidemic.

Comparing the socio-economic and political impacts, and the legality, of telling someone they cannot come home to their country of citizenship versus telling them they need to stay home in their country of citizenship is like comparing apples and oranges. To equate them in a policy analysis is not only irrational, but would also result in Canada ceding its national sovereignty -- at the core of which is the capacity for a discretionary border-crossing policy -- to an unelected international body, or worse yet, not having any border authority whatsoever. It is international health emergencies that nicely expose the intellectual folly of unrestricted open border policies.

Being curious, I looked into the immigration and citizenship policies for one of the West African nations affected by Canada's Ebola travel restrictions: Sierra Leone. According to The Non-Citizens (Registration, Immigration and Expulsion) Act, 1965, “'citizen' includes any person either of whose parents is a negro of African descent,” a “'non-citizen' means any person who is not a citizen,” and the  “classes of prohibited immigrants” shall include “those likely to become paupers; idiots and insane persons; those deemed undesirable or dangerous to peace; persons with an expulsion order against them; persons not in possession of valid travel documents; prostitutes, brothel keeps, or persons who allow the defilement of young girls.” In addition, “the Governor-General may, in his absolute discretion, by Order prohibit the entry into Sierra Leone of any non-citizen.” This hardly sounds like an open border policy.

All nations retain the right to exert unlimited discretion in their border policies, and the countries affected by Canada's travel restrictions behave no differently than Canada. In fact, their border crossing policies are undoubtedly far more restrictive and “discriminatory” than Canada's. Canada -- through its decision to implement sound travel restrictions because of valid concerns about the international movement of the Ebola epidemic -- is acting well within its rights as a sovereign nation, and is most certainly not displaying any form of unusual or fundamentally discriminatory behavior via these policies. On the contrary, other developed nations should be following Canada's lead.