Ottawa: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reversed his government's open immigration stance and will begin turning back asylum-seekers who walk in from the United States outside of official border crossings.
The move, which takes effect at 11:59pm Friday Canada time, came as the countries prepared to close their mutual border for the first time since Canada became an independent nation and as nations seal themselves to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
"This is a temporary measure which we'll put in place for as long as the coronavirus crisis lasts," Trudeau said only three days after his government said such asylum-seekers would only be quarantined. "These are exceptional measures to protect citizens."
Shift in policy or temporary measure? Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.Credit:Bloomberg
By Friday afternoon 929 coronavirus cases and 11 deaths had been reported in Canada, although that figure was rapidly rising.
Canada's move came as even more severe border restrictions were being applied around the world, and particularly in once border-free Europe. In Hungary, travellers have been stranded, roads clogged and tempers flared after Prime Minister Viktor Orban closed the border to all foreign nationals.
Eight migrants from Somalia cross into Canada illegally from the US by walking down a train track into the town of Emerson, Manitoba, in 2017. Migrant numbers have decreased since the outbreak of coronavirus.Credit:The Canadian Press/AP
Refugees have sought to leave the US for Canada in increasing numbers since 2017, when US President Donald Trump took office and tightened restrictions on immigration; 54,739 asylum-seekers have since crossed outside of regular border points and made refugee claims in Canada. They include many Haitians who risked losing temporary protection in the US gained after the 2010 earthquake.
Friday's change by Trudeau's government was swiftly condemned by civil rights and refugee groups.
"We are shocked and deeply disappointed at this news," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. "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."
Justin Mohammed, a human rights law and policy campaigner at Amnesty International Canada, said Trudeau's action was identical to measures used by the US at its border with Mexico — steps his group views as a violation of international law.
Bill Blair, Canada's public safety minister, did not respond to specific questions about the reversal. But he characterised the step as part of the closing of the border to all but "essential" travel and trade. He said irregular border crossings were "a challenge to manage and regulate."
The asylum-seekers, Blair said, would not be detained but simply turned around and sent back to the US. Dench said she feared they would then be detained by US border officials if they do not hold legal immigration status.
While Trudeau's immigration policies and his swift acceptance of large numbers of Syrian refugees in 2016 were widely supported by Canadians, according to several polls, there has been less enthusiasm about the irregular crossings, particularly in Quebec. Politicians in that province, along with the Conservative Party opposition, have long called on the government to turn back asylum-seekers.
The method has not assured claimants that they can stay in Canada permanently, however. Of the cases heard, about 12,000 have been accepted and just under 11,000 have been rejected.
While the number of claimants has fluctuated, about 50 daily asylum-seekers have found an irregular border crossing and then made a claim in Canada. Blair said that number has fallen substantially during the coronavirus crisis.
While officials emphasised that the action is temporary, Mohammed said he was skeptical.
"History demonstrates that when we see the rollback of certain human rights, the unwinding of that action has been very difficult," he said.
The New York Times
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