Asylum seekers who attempt to come into Canada irregularly from the United States will be sent back as part of a new agreement between both countries, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.
The prime minister made the announcement Friday at a news conference outside of his official residence, about 12 hours before a border clampdown will go into effect that will ban non-essential U.S. visitors to Canada.
“Canada and the United States are announcing a reciprocal arrangement where we will now be returning irregular migrants who attempt to cross anywhere at the Canada-U.S. border,” he said.
Trudeau said the step is “temporary” and that the deal was worked out with U.S. counterparts over the past 24 hours.
“We recognize that these are exceptional times. And someone who comes to the border to request asylum will be turned back to American authorities, as happens right now when someone comes to an official border crossing and requests asylum,” he said.
Watch: Trudeau says social distancing measures could last ‘weeks to months’
“We also have ensured that we are comfortable with this process being in line with Canada’s values on the treatment of refugees and vulnerable people,” he added.
Over the past three years, thousands of people have crossed into Canada from the U.S. using unofficial entry points to get around a deal — the Safe Third Country Agreement — that forbids asylum seekers from lodging claims at land border crossings.
At a later press conference in Ottawa, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair called the suite of changes at the border “progressive and significant,” but said they will only last as long as the restrictions on non-essential U.S. visitors remain in place.
“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,” Blair said.
Asylum seekers who have already crossed into Canada will be placed in self-isolation for 14 days in new temporary shelters run by the federal government.
The minister said the new steps are not being put in place because irregular border crossers pose any higher health risk.
“But we have recognized that non-essential travellers coming across the border do represent a risk,” he said.
Blair told reporters that both Canadians and Americans have already been responsive to the tightened border measures announced days earlier. “We’ve seen a significant decline over the past 24 hours in non-essential travel at that border,” he said.
New rules enforced Friday at midnight
“Travellers will no longer be permitted to cross the border for recreation and tourism,” the prime minister said on Wednesday. “We’re telling our citizens not to visit their neighbours if they don’t absolutely have to. This collaborative and reciprocal measure is an extension of that prudent approach.”
The new rules barring non-essential travel will be enforced midnight Friday. The border will remain open to facilitate essential services between the two countries, such as to businesses that import and export food and medical supplies.
For Indigenous communities who live on both sides of the border, travel will be unimpeded by the new measures, Blair said. Those on temporary work permits or U.S. citizens with valid visas will still be allowed to cross but must self-isolate for 14 days.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters Friday that the new border measures should not affect agricultural workers’ work visas, citing an objective to keep commerce between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico alive.
Refugees’ group ‘shocked and deeply disappointed’
Pompeo said he’s uncertain how long the temporary emergency measures will remain in place at the border. “They’ll last as long as we need to do it to protect the American people from the virus,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you how long it’s going to last.”
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told HuffPost Canada in an email that her organization 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. This includes our fundamental legal obligation to not turn refugees away at the borders,” she said.
“It is dismaying to find that the Government of Canada is not prepared to live up to that commitment.”
Blair said some “very limited exceptions” would be granted to asylum seekers, for instance an unaccompanied minor with American nationality.
Dench said a “major concern” is that people turned back to the U.S. will be put in detention if they don’t have status. But Blair downplayed that risk saying only in “very rare” exceptions, such as criminality, would American citizens be placed in detention. Many crossing the border, however, are not U.S. citizens.
Over the last week, the federal government has drastically increased its response to the public health and economic threat posed by the pandemic.
Earlier, Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau unveiled details of a $82-billion assistance package to help Canadian businesses and workers affected by the financial shocks to be felt from nation-wide social distancing measures.
The new funding comes on top of the $11 billion pledged last week to help Canadian businesses weather the effects of the pandemic.
Officials on all levels of government have strongly recommended that Canadians work from home if possible and avoid non-essential international travel. Health officials have stressed Canadians to refrain from social gatherings to curb community transmission of the highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
There are more than 925 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of mid-day Friday, according to chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam. Twelve deaths have been linked to the disease in Canada.
With files from Althia Raj