COVID-19: Canada to turn back asylum seekers, close border at midnight

Canada will now turn back asylum-seekers attempting to enter the country outside of official border points, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday — part of a set of extreme new measures meant to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Asylum seekers were already barred from entering Canada at official border points under the Safe Third Country Agreement, but migrants have continued to arrive by foot at Roxham Road in Quebec in a steady flow due to an exception for non-official crossings under the agreement.

Another agreement to close the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential travel, trade and commerce will kick in at midnight.

Trudeau described the measures as part of an unprecedented but necessary response to an emergency that many are comparing to wartime and the Great Depression.

The reciprocal agreement on irregular migrants, which Trudeau called an “exceptional” and temporary measure, was signed earlier today. The development comes just one day after the government announced all border-crossers would be under quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, and that the federal government was looking for space to shelter the arrivals.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said the decision breaches Canada’s international obligations.

“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 in an email.

“We are shocked that the Government of Canada is not prepared to live up to that commitment.”

An agreement to close the Canada-U.S. border to all non-essential travellers is set to kick in at midnight. The border will remain open for trade and commerce to ensure a stable supply chain for goods.

According to a release from the Department of Homeland Security, the agreement will allow people to cross the border for medical purposes and to attend educational institutions or work, and includes exemptions for emergency response and public health purposes, and the transport of goods.

Diplomats, others travelling on government business and military members will also be exempt from the travel restrictions.

This week the government has announced an $82-billion package to help Canadians and businesses deal with the financial impact of the crisis. Today, Trudeau said 500,000 Canadians have already applied for employment insurance benefits, compared to 27,000 in the same week last year.

Trudeau also announced a repatriation flight to bring home Canadians stranded in Morocco will take place this weekend. Talks are underway with airlines for other repatriation flights.

CBC News has special coverage of Trudeau’s address to the nation, followed by a news conference with cabinet ministers and health officials beginning at 11 a.m. Watch it here on CBCNews.ca.

Senior government sources have told CBC News they’re hoping to work with existing manufacturers — especially of gloves, masks and ventilators — on a supply chain that’s resistant to disruption.

In addition, sources say, almost every program within the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development will be “refocused” on fighting the virus. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to speak publicly. 

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