OTTAWA — Asylum seekers crossing by foot into Canada from the U.S. are being screened for COVID-19 and moved to a shelter to accommodate the requirement that all incoming travellers to Canada self-isolate for 14 days, the federal public safety minister said Tuesday.
Efforts to ensure border crossers follow those guidelines come as the federal government ramps up restrictions on entry into Canada in a bid to cut off new sources of infection.
Starting Wednesday, most international air travel will be routed to four airports, and only Canadians, permanent residents, Americans and a few other groups of people will be allowed into the country. The government hinted Tuesday that cross-border traffic with the U.S. could still be curtailed further.
Around 1,000 people a month have been entering Canada for nearly three years between formal border crossings in order to request refugee status here, crossing over farmers’ fields or well-trod paths to get around the Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. The deal doesn’t allow people to request asylum at official land border points, but people can lodge claims once inside the country.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said Tuesday that the asylum seekers are being screened for COVID-19 symptoms, but rather than following the normal protocol of referring them to temporary shelter — most often in Montreal, as the majority are arriving in Quebec — alternative accommodation is being arranged to account for the voluntary isolation period.
Details on that were not immediately available.
“We are doing this because we believe it is necessary and in the best interest of keeping all Canadians healthy and safe,” he said.
Conservative immigration critic Peter Kent said it made no sense to allow the asylum seekers to continue to enter the country.
“This is the perfect time to close the gaping Safe Third Country loophole and apply (the) same restrictions at irregular crossings as at formal border posts,” Kent said on Twitter.
The Bloc Quebecois, meanwhile, renewed its call for the Liberal government to further and shut down informal entry points, such as the Roxham Road crossing between New York and Quebec, to slow the rate of infection.
The decision by the federal government to effectively close the Canadian border is expected to have major implications for the immigration system, which had hoped to welcome upwards of 340,000 new permanent residents this year, including 31,700 refugees.
But, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the International Organization for Migration announced Tuesday they’re temporarily suspending their resettlement programs going forward, given the international disruption to travel.
They said they are hoping people who have already cleared all the formalities will be able to arrive, and that countries will at least keep processing applications for when travel bans lift.
“As resettlement remains a life-saving tool for many refugees, UNHCR and IOM are appealing to States, and working in close co-ordination with them, to ensure that movements can continue for the most critical emergency cases wherever possible,” the organizations said in a statement.
The flow of asylum seekers is a minuscule fraction of the daily traffic between Canada and the U.S.
Statistics suggest, for example, that in December 2019 alone, 400,000 commercial vehicles made the trip across the border.
That traffic is keeping essential goods and services moving into both countries, and it’s for that reason the Liberal government says it is currently exempting Americans from a ban on travel into Canada.
But Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Tuesday that the decision is continually under review, and reiterated that non-essential cross-border traffic should be cancelled.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu, whose own Ontario riding is near the U.S. border, said Canadians need to think about what essential really means, especially in border towns where quick jaunts into the U.S. are a way of life.
“When we say non-essential travel, that means including crossing the border to buy cigarettes or alcohol, to pick up packages that are delivered to the United States, to do grocery shopping in the United States because the prices may or may not be lower, or you need to find specific items that are not available in Canada,” she said.
“These would be considered non-essential trips.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press