Border officials are preparing for another spike in asylum seekers coming illegally into Canada from the U.S. as the weather gets warmer.
The RCMP intercepted more than 3,000 irregular border-crossers in January and February, part of a total number of 7,800 asylum seekers processed by the federal immigration department and the Canada Border Services Agency during the same time period.
Those figures don’t include more than 600 additional arrivals who entered the country illegally through Quebec over the Easter weekend.
Officials are expecting those numbers to continue to grow as temperatures rise. Immigration and CBSA officials have been preparing for the influx after getting caught flat-footed last summer dealing with an unexpected surge in mainly Haitian migrants entering Canada through Ontario and Quebec.
“Canada is an open and welcoming country to those in need of protection, but our government is committed to orderly migration to protect Canadians and our immigration system. Our government is prepared for any future fluctuations,” said Mathieu Genest, press secretary for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.
Many of the most recent migrants crossing illegally into Canada are Nigerian, which suggests word-of-mouth about Canada as a safe haven for asylum seekers has continued to spread despite Canadian efforts to counter it. A number of Liberal MPs headed south last year in an effort to warn would-be travellers against making the trip.
In any event, if more migrants continue to arrive, border officials will be ready, Genest said Friday. “We have worked with various departments, provinces and settlement organizations to develop a national operations plan to manage possible scenarios at the border.”
The Liberal government has also committed $74 million to help address lengthy backlogs in processing refugee claims at the Immigration and Refugee Board. The department has also cut work-permit wait times for asylum seekers from three months to three weeks and issued more than 12,000 work permits to asylum seekers in Quebec.
But the Canadian Council for Refugees says it is concerned about vulnerable migrants being exploited by scammers who offer to help them cross the border for a hefty fee.
“People pay up large amounts of money, get to Canada, find out that they’re making a refugee claim … and find out they’ve been lied to by the scammers,” said executive director Janet Dench. “That sort of thing happens quite regularly.”
The council has been calling for the government to suspend the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which has been cited as a major factor in the spike of irregular border crossings.
The agreement makes it impossible for would-be refugees arriving from the U.S. to claim asylum at an official port of entry to Canada. They can only make such a claim from inside the country, prompting thousands to make the crossing on foot through unofficial entry points.
Suspending the agreement would all but eliminate irregular crossings and make migrant refugees less vulnerable to scammers, Dench said.
“There’s this whole charade that people have to go through in order to make a claim in Canada, which would be completely unnecessary if Canada would simply say, ‘We will suspend the safe third country agreement,’ and then people could apply in a regular way.”
But the government has made it clear no such changes will be forthcoming.
“The safe third country agreement is an important tool used by Canada and the U.S. to co-operate on the orderly handling of refugee claims. It is a vital component of our well-managed immigration system,” Genest said.
Last year, more than 50,000 asylum claims were processed by immigration and CBSA, more than twice the number processed every year prior since 2011.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press