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Ottawa taking charge of housing asylum seekers during 14-day isolation period


ST-BERNARD-DE-LACOLLE, Que. — As of Friday, all asylum seekers entering Quebec from the United States at Roxham Road will be temporarily housed during 14 days of mandatory isolation at the federal government's expense, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Thursday.

Freeland told reporters that Ottawa wants to ensure asylum seekers will be isolated for two weeks when entering the country, as other travellers are asked to do in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

"We understand we must take responsibility and we will do it, to organize housing to be certain that it will be possible for asylum seekers to isolate themselves," she said from Ottawa.

Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos said Thursday the federal government will shoulder the responsibility in order to avoid lengthy discussions over jurisdiction.

"Let's be clear, we're in a period of crisis, a period of emergency," he said. "And for that reason, emergency measures must be used."

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, the unofficial border crossing at Roxham Road was quiet.

RCMP officers, some wearing gloves and masks, could be seen milling in and out of a large white shed as well as a modular building that have been set up at the end of the country road that has become the entry point for most of Canada's irregular border crossings.

But while no asylum seekers were in sight, the national president of the Customs and Immigration Union said the number of people crossing at Roxham Road has increased to about 80 people per day, up from 50 to 60 two weeks ago.

Jean-Pierre Fortin said it was unclear whether the crossings were related to COVID-19 or to other factors, noting that agents also recorded a rise in crossings last spring compared to the prior winter.

"Over the course of the next weeks will it rise higher because of fear? We'll see," he said in a phone interview.

Fortin said protecting customs workers from COVID-19 needs to be a priority, since they come into contact with travellers from all over the world.

Asylum seekers often pass through five or more countries on their way to Canada, Fortin said, putting them at increased risk of being exposed to the virus.

Border agents, he added, were also worried about a rush of Canadian snowbirds who have been returning from the southern United States in recent days.

As of late Thursday, it was unclear where the asylum seekers would be housed, or how the mandatory isolation would be enforced.

The Canada Border Services Agency said in an email that the agency promised to provide more information at a later time, noting "the situation is evolving at a fast pace."  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2020.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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