Irregular migrants trying to cross the land border with the United States will be turned back and won’t be allowed to claim asylum in Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday.
“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 told reporters at a press conference outside Rideau Cottage in Ottawa.
The move comes amid security concerns around screening people at irregular boarding crossings for the new coronavirus as Canada and the U.S. agreed to limit all non-essential travel between the two countries to stop the spread of COVID-19, as of 23:59 on Friday.
Asylum seekers were already barred from entering Canada at official border points under the Safe Third Country Agreement, but migrants had continued to arrive by foot at Roxham Road on the border between New York State and Quebec, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said during a press conference in Ottawa, announcing details of these new measures.
“There will be, if necessary, limited exceptions put in place,” Blair said. “But I want to also be very clear: we are taking this measure to maintain safety and order at our border and at the same time these measures will only be in place temporarily, as long as the agreement of the restriction on non-essential [travel] remains in place.”
The new measure came just a day after the federal government announced that it would take charge of all new irregular migrants crossing the border at Roxham Road and would make sure they abide by the 14-day period of isolation recommended by the federal government for all arrivals into Canada.
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.”
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said they are “shocked and deeply disappointed at this news.”
“During a pandemic, we must uphold our commitments to protecting the rights of refugees and vulnerable migrants,” Dench told Radio Canada International. “This includes our fundamental legal obligation to not turn refugees away at the borders. It is dismaying to find that the Government of Canada is not prepared to live up to that commitment.”
Dench said there is a major concern that people turned back to the U.S. will be put in detention if they don’t have status.
“Immigration detention in the U.S. was already a serious rights violation (as we argued in our legal challenge of the STCA) – the situation is even worse now with the pandemic putting detained people at risk,” she said in an email.
Blair said there is no policy of detaining irregular migrants unless there are reasons to believe that they were involved in “serious criminality.”
With files from CBC News and The Canadian Press