Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that irregular migrants crossing on foot from the U.S. will be turned away when they reach Canada as part of a wider border shutdown amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
“Canada and the United States are announcing a reciprocal arrangement that we will now be returning irregular migrants that attempt to cross anywhere at the Canada-U.S. border,” Trudeau said outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa
The move comes amid security concerns around screening people at irregular border crossings for COVID-19 and hours before the closure of the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential travel goes into effect at midnight.
Trudeau said the new measures are “temporary” but required as the world battles the new coronavirus outbreak, which has sickened 246,275 worldwide as of March 19, including at least 846 people in Canada.
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As of Friday morning, 10 Canadians have died from COVID-19.
Friday’s announcement marks a significant reversal in policy for the Trudeau government, which had previously looked at placing any border crossers into mandatory self-isolation. It will now stop asylum seekers from entering Canada at Roxham Road in Quebec.
“Those who’ve already crossed the border will be put in isolation,” Trudeau said. “But in the future, those trying to cross the border irregularly will be released back into the U.S.”
The new announcement Friday would shut down informal crossings, like Roxham Road between New York and Quebec.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said there’s “no evidence” to suggest asylum seekers are a higher health risk and that all non-essential travellers “posed a risk.”
“We would simply direct them back to curtail that irregular migration, which was very difficult, quite frankly, to monitor, to ensure the safety of Canadians,” Blair told reporters. “It’s part of a larger suite of measures that we are putting in place to have better control of non-essential passage of the border.”
Conservative public safety critic Pierre Paul-Hus said his party had been calling on the Liberal government to implement stronger measures at the border “for days.”
“Today the government finally listened to us and did the right thing by closing the border,” Paul-Hus said in a statement
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The Canadian Council for Refugees said it is “shocked and deeply disappointed” by the news.
“During a pandemic, we must uphold our commitments to protecting the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants,” said Janet Dench, the organization’s executive director, in an email. “There is a major concern that people turned back to the US will be put in detention if they don’t have status.
Since the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada began tracking irregular border crossers in February 2017, Canada has received roughly 54,739 refugee claims made by irregular migrants.
Roughly 1,000 people a month have been entering Canada for nearly three years between formal border crossings in order to request refugee status here to get around Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the U.S.
Under the STCA, asylum seekers aren’t allowed to make formal requests for protection at official land border points, but people can make claims once inside the country.
— With files from the Canadian Press