Canada will now turn back asylum-seekers attempting to enter the country outside of official border points, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday — part of a set of extreme new measures meant to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Asylum seekers were already barred from entering Canada at official border points under the Safe Third Country Agreement, but migrants have continued to arrive by foot at Roxham Road in Quebec in a steady flow due to an exception for non-official crossings under the agreement.
Another agreement to close the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential travel, trade and commerce will kick in at midnight.
Trudeau described the measures as part of an unprecedented but necessary response to an emergency that many are comparing to wartime and the Great Depression.
In Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada has encouraged people to work from home where possible, to self-isolate if experiencing any symptoms, and to practise social distancing to stop the spread of the virus.
Asked if those measures will be enough to meet the threat, Trudeau said nothing is off the table and the government will consider all possible responses, including lockdowns.
“We know there is always more to do and we will encourage people to stay home, to practise social distancing, not just to protect themselves but also to protect our health care workers and the system that is working so hard to keep Canadians safe and healthy,” he said.
The reciprocal agreement on irregular migrants, which Trudeau called an “exceptional” and temporary measure, was signed earlier today. The development comes just one day after the government announced all border-crossers would be under quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, and that the federal government was looking for space to shelter the arrivals.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said asylum seekers do not represent a higher public health risk, but monitoring and isolating them would present a challenge in unprecedented circumstances.
“It’s part of a larger suite of measures that we are putting in place to have better control of non-essential passage of that border,” he said.
“This is a challenge to manage and regulate, and so to address that challenge in these extraordinary circumstances, we’ve agreed that this is the appropriate measure to put in place.”
Blair said the number of crossings at Roxham Road has declined in recent days, from about 40 to 50 people a day to just 17 on Thursday.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the decision breaches Canada’s international obligations.
“During a pandemic, we must uphold our commitments to protecting the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants. This includes our fundamental legal obligation to not turn refugees away at the borders,” she said in an email.
“We are shocked that the Government of Canada is not prepared to live up to that commitment.”
An agreement to close the Canada-U.S. border to all non-essential travellers is set to kick in at midnight. The border will remain open for trade and commerce to ensure a stable supply chain for goods.
According to a release from the Department of Homeland Security, the agreement will allow people to cross the border for medical purposes and to attend educational institutions or work, and includes exemptions for emergency response and public health purposes, and the transport of goods.
Diplomats, others travelling on government business and military members will also be exempt from the travel restrictions.