Canada’s partial travel ban over COVID-19 will not stop asylum seekers from crossing into the country at unofficial entries, but Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said intercepted migrants will face additional health checks and be asked to self-isolate.
Mr. Blair said border officials will continue to take asylum seekers into custody after they enter Canada irregularly, as they have been, but will also start screening for symptoms of COVID-19 and ask migrants where they have been. The asylum seekers, who would normally be moved to temporary shelter facilities after being processed at the border, will self-isolate for two weeks, like every other person entering Canada.
“Because of the need for the 14-day self-isolation, we are now making separate arrangements for those individuals to be placed in appropriate shelter in order to accommodate the requirement for the period of isolation. We are doing this because we believe it is necessary and in the best interest of keeping all Canadians healthy and safe,” Mr. Blair told reporters at a briefing in Ottawa on Tuesday.
More than 57,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada through unauthorized border crossings since 2017, when President Donald Trump announced a crackdown on illegal immigration. The majority of the crossings have occurred at a single entry point along Roxham Road in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que.
Most of the asylum seekers have been able to remain in Canada through a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires Canada and the U.S. to refuse entry to most asylum seekers who arrive at official points of entry along the shared border, as both countries are considered safe for refugees. But since the agreement applies only to those who arrive at official points of entry, asylum seekers can avoid being immediately turned away by crossing between border posts, requiring Canada to process most of their claims.
Maureen Silcoff, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, said the government struck the right tone by creating a “clear public health policy" for asylum seekers.
“We have certain international legal obligations because we are signed onto the Refugee Convention,” said Ms. Silcoff. “We can take appropriate public health measures while at the same time upholding core Canadian values ... We’ve seen our leadership do this today.”
The Conservatives have been critical of the government’s handling of the irregular border crossings, but, in a Tuesday statement, supported Ottawa’s decision to ensure migrants self-isolate.
However, two top contenders for the Conservative leadership race called on the government to implement stricter measures and turn asylum seekers away at the border amid the outbreak of the virus.
“The government just confirmed they’re allowing illegal border crossings. Instead of turning people away, we’re letting them in and paying for their health care and quarantine. There are concerns about having enough equipment just for our own citizens. This needs to stop now," said Peter MacKay.
Erin O’Toole called the decision “unacceptable” and said Canada must “secure our border immediately.”
The Liberal government has long tried to balance Canada’s legal obligation to allow people to seek protection at the border with alleviating pressure on the country’s refugee system, which has been taxed by a surge in asylum seekers. Canada has asked the U.S. to consider revamping the 2004 agreement so Canada can turn away more asylum seekers, but the U.S. has not agreed to reopen talks.
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