OTTAWA — The Liberal government, which has won worldwide acclaim for its open-door policy to refugees, announced Friday it is slamming the door shut to asylum-seekers at the border in a bid to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said those crossing between the two countries on foot to claim asylum will be turned away as part of the broader deal with the U.S. to close the border to all but non-essential traffic.
"We recognize that these are exceptional times," Trudeau said.
Refugee advocates immediately pushed back, saying exceptional times don't mean turning away those seeking safe haven.
"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," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said in an email.
"We are shocked that the government of Canada is not prepared to live up to that commitment."
A decision by the Liberal government earlier this month to restrict most international travel into Canada had already temporarily upended most of Canada's refugee resettlement efforts.
But even as they banned international travellers, the Liberals didn't say how they'd deal with those who've recently been crossing into Canada on foot through informal openings in the border to claim asylum.
Calls had grown louder in recent days for the federal government to deal with the issue, amid concerns the new arrivals were skirting requirements for all travellers to self-isolate for 14 days.
On Thursday, the government had said they'd place the irregular crossers into mandatory self-isolation for 14 days in federal housing. They would not say Friday how or why that escalated into a decision to just turn them away.
The UN's refugee agency appeared caught off-guard by the pivot, with its Ottawa representative saying it is still working to understand the measures.
"While all states must manage their borders in the context of this unique crisis to protect public health and safety, they must carefully balance these measures to not close avenues to asylum or return people to situations of danger," Rema Jamous Imseis said in a statement.
Since 2017, more than 56,000 people have crossed into Canada from the U.S. on foot using informal openings in the border, the best known being one in Quebec called Roxham Road, where roadways in Quebec and New York are separated by only a few metres of scrub.
All are seeking to get around the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. that forbids people from applying for asylum at regular land border crossings, on the grounds that both countries are safe and people need to ask for refugee status where they arrive first.
Advocates have argued major changes to U.S. immigration policy, including detentions and deportations of asylum seekers, have effectively rendered that country unsafe for refugees and the deal should be changed.
The Liberals have long maintained they believe the U.S. remains safe, and on Friday, Trudeau suggested he had no qualms about turning people back.
He said many of the people who show up at the border are in the U.S. legally, and would not be detained there.
"We also have ensured we are comfortable with this process as being in line with Canada's values on the treatment of refugees and vulnerable people," he said.
The strain the border-crossers were placing on both political goodwill towards refugees and the public purse had prompted the Liberals to pledge in the last election they'd work to amend the deal.
There was never any sign of actual activity but both the Canadian and U.S. governments acknowledged Friday that the need for swift responses to COVID-19 is resulting in decisions made in a matter of hours that usually would have taken months.
The Bloc Quebecois welcomed the change, having called for more efforts to stop the crossings at Roxham Road since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
U.S. President Donald Trump said his country's health care officials are concerned about the consequences of "mass uncontrolled cross-border movement."
"We've had these problems for decades," Trump said.
"Now with the national emergencies and all of the other things that we've declared, we can actually do something about it."
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said there had already been a drop in those crossing the border from about 40 to 50 people a day down to 17 on Thursday.
He said the decision to turn people back is a temporary one for now, and will remain in place as long as the border is closed to non-essential travel, 30 days to start with the option to renew.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20,2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press