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The Conservatives have been critical of the government’s handling of the irregular border crossings – asylum seekers seen here crossing the border from New York into Canada on March 18, 2020 in Hemmingford, Quebec – for the past couple of years, and welcomed Friday’s announcement.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Asylum seekers attempting to enter the country from any entry point along the Canada-U.S. border will be turned away, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday. The news shows how rapidly Ottawa’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is changing.

The decision was announced three days after the government said asylum seekers would not be prevented from crossing at unofficial entry points, but would be subjected to additional health checks and asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said Friday that individuals trying to cross anywhere along the border will not be referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board. Instead, they will be returned “directly back to the United States.”

There will be exceptions, he said, and the agreement goes both ways: If a Canadian tries to cross into the U.S., they will receive the same treatment.

More than 57,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada through unauthorized border crossings since 2017, when U.S. 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. It 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.

The Conservatives have been critical of the government’s handling of the irregular border crossings for the past couple of years, and welcomed Friday’s announcement.

Meanwhile refugee advocacy groups have previously encouraged the government to make it easier for people fleeing the U.S. to seek asylum in Canada, and are disappointed with the decision.

Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, called the move “beyond disappointing and disgraceful.”

“Today’s news only serves to further inflame misconceptions and racism rather than offering reassurance and leadership. When it comes to refugees, Canada is stepping back at a time when we need to step forward.”

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said her organization is “shocked and deeply disappointed."

“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. It is dismaying to find that the Government of Canada is not prepared to live up to that commitment.”

Mr. Blair said the agreement will be put into force Friday at midnight and will continue for a 30-day period, subject to renewal, and in keeping with the temporary restriction on all non-essential travel between the two countries.

Non-essential travel has declined significantly since the two countries announced an agreement had been reached earlier this week, Mr. Blair said. He reiterated that essential travel, such as trade and commerce, will continue.

Mr. Trump linked the new border restrictions to his broader anti-immigration push.

“Our nation’s top health-care officials are extremely concerned about the grave public health consequences of mass, uncontrolled cross-border movement and that would be mostly, and even beyond, but mostly during this global pandemic," he said at a White House press briefing midday Friday.

He emphasized the provisions of the deals with Canada and Mexico that would allow for undocumented immigrants to be immediately turned back at the border and deported.

“Every week, our border agents encounter thousands of unscreened, unvetted and unauthorized entries from dozens of countries. We’ve had this problem for decades, for decades, you know the story, but now it’s with the national emergencies and all of the other things that we’ve declared, we can actually do something about it,” he said.

“We’re taking a very strong hold of that, and we have before, but this is now at a level that nobody’s ever approached in normal times. These massive flows place a vast burden on our health-care system, but during a global pandemic they threaten to create a perfect storm that would spread infection to our border agents, migrants and to the public at large."

Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said the travel restrictions would not affect trade or cross-border business, and listed several other exemptions: medical-related travel, education, emergency response and public health.

“Neither of these agreements with Canada or Mexico applies to lawful trade or commerce. Essential commercial activities will not be impacted. We will continue to maintain a strong and secure economic supply chain across our borders,” he said.

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