Canadian officials are keeping close tabs on the number of people illegally crossing the border into Canada, but they don't expect the winter increase will necessarily lead to a spring surge.
Government officials, who spoke on background and did not wish to be named, provided journalists with an update on illegal crossings today and confirmed an increase in three provinces.
Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 21 this year, there were 290 illegal crossings in Quebec, 94 in Manitoba and 51 in British Columbia, totalling 435.
That compares with 2,464 illegal entries apprehended by the RCMP in the same regions in all of 2016.
These numbers do not include people who may have crossed illegally without being caught by police.
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While it is a criminal offence to cross into Canada outside a legal border point, no one has yet been charged, according to an official. If caught, the person who has entered the country without authorization is arrested and required to undergo a criminal background check.
"To my knowledge we haven't charged the people for crossing the border illegally," one official said. "We determine if there's any criminality … then we would follow up. If there's no criminality, we would turn them over to our counterparts at CBSA."
The Canada Border Services Agency can detain people who have a criminal record, who can't be properly identified or who are at risk of not showing up for a hearing. Officials stressed that all people are carefully screened by CBSA before they are released.
No charges until after refugee claim process
Refugee and human rights lawyer Lorne Waldman said police cannot lay a charge until the refugee claim process is complete.
"There's a clear provision in the law that says people who cross the border or use false documents in order to come to Canada to make a refugee claim cannot be charged unless their claim is rejected, because the UN convention says people shouldn't be punished for illegal entry if it's for the purpose of making a refugee claim," he told CBC News.
Careful screening process
"We are not releasing anybody that we have concerns about," an official said. "Their identity is confirmed, the biometrics have been confirmed, the biographic data is confirmed … they are deemed admissible and they are eligible for proceeding towards a refugee claim."
The total number of people who made refugee claims in Canada inland — not at official border points — climbed to 2,281 this year between Jan. 1 and Feb. 21, up from 1,803 during the same period in 2016.
Once deemed admissible to Canada, the cases are turned over to the Immigration and Refugee Board, which hears the circumstances and makes a determination on whether the individual is in need of Canada's protection.
The issue of illegal border crossings has been in the spotlight in recent weeks with harrowing stories of people making the dangerous trek by foot in frigid temperatures, some losing digits to frostbite.
Some have raised concerns that the number of illegal crossings could explode with the warmer weather and put a strain on resources, but officials said it's too early to sound the alarm.
Officials continue to monitor the situation and work with domestic and international partners to better understand "the phenomena," but said there is no reason right now to believe a change in weather will lead to a further increase.
U.S. crackdown threat
"We continue to do that intelligence work, to either quantify or justify that the speculation is accurate.… but to me that is speculative if there's no foundation to say that will occur," one official said.
Waldman said much depends on what happens south of the border, and how U.S. President Donald Trump proceeds with his promised immigration crackdown.
"If the situation in the U.S. gets worse and there's a significant concern in the immigrant communities there that they might risk being detained and deported, I would expect that will lead to a significant flow of people into Canada," he said.
A report from the auditor general of Canada tabled in the fall of 2013 reviewed the government's collective efforts to prevent illegal entry to Canada, focusing on the practices and systems of the CBSA and RCMP.
"Failure to prevent illegal entry compromises Canada's border, the immigration program, and the safety and security of Canadians," the audit said. "Illegal entries are a significant burden on taxpayers. In some cases, authorities must spend time, resources, and effort to track down individuals who are considered a significant threat to the safety of Canadians."
The report found there was no estimate on the cost of illegal entries, but said the Immigration Department estimates that each rejected refugee claimant, some of whom enter Canada illegally, costs taxpayers about $26,000.
Health benefits provided
The 2013 report also found that, at the time, the CBSA and RCMP spent about $728 million a year combined on border control activities.
Once someone has been determined to be eligible to make a refugee claim, they are entitled to health services coverage through the Interim Federal Health Program. As part of that coverage, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada pays physicians for the cost of the medical exam to ensure they don't pose a threat to public health.
When a person is given protected person status, they are eligible for a number of settlement services, including language training and help to get a job.
Some refugee lawyers, human rights advocates and the NDP have been calling for the suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires asylum seekers to request refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in.
Under that agreement, which was signed in 2002 and came into force in 2004, border officials refuse entry to would-be refugee claimants arriving at an official border crossing to Canada, with a few exceptions.