Update on number of asylum seekers only tells part of the story

New government stats offer small glimpse into the flow of asylum seekers into Canada.

New government stats offer small glimpse into the flow of asylum seekers into Canada

Asylum seekers walk up the rail tracks leading from the U.S. into Canada near Emerson, Man. (John Woods/The Canadian Press )

The statistics are trickling out very slowly, but the overall picture of the number of asylum seekers crossing from the U.S. into Canada, and what is happening to them is becoming slightly clearer. 

Last month, the federal government promised monthly updates on the numbers of people being intercepted at the Canada-U.S. border. That was after the RCMP and Canada Border Services Agency stopped releasing those numbers, citing inconsistencies in their own record keeping — much to the frustration of local and opposition politicians, and many of the people living in border communities. 

What the first update shows is what many expected — a sharp increase in people crossing the border from February into March, as weather warmed and the crossing into Canada became easier. 

In March, the national numbers nearly matched those of the two previous months previous, as the RCMP intercepted 887 people crossing over the border that month. 

All told, between Jan. 1 and March 31 of this year, 1,860 people were intercepted crossing into Canada seeking to claim asylum, including 331 in Manitoba. (Keep in mind these stats do not reflect people who may have crossed undetected and did not report to Canada Border Services Agency.)

Also not surprising is that Quebec and Manitoba continued to have highest instances of crossings — 644 and 170 in March alone, respectively.

What's happening to them?

First, the background — the reason people are sneaking over the border is that Canada generally doesn't accept refugee claims made from inside the United States, which is viewed as a "safe" nation under the Safe Third Country Agreement. 

However, Canada will consider refugee claims made from within its own borders.

So while under the Customs Act it's illegal to simply walk across the Canada/U.S. border without going through a border crossing, the Immigration and Refugee Act provides an exception for foreign nationals legitimately claiming refugee status. That puts Canada in line with the 1952 UN Convention on Refugees.

To figure out what's happening, those new government numbers are just a starting point. 

RCMP greet three men illegally entering Quebec from Roxham Road in upstate New York in March. (Catharine Tunney/CBC)
Figuring out how many are actually getting in, where they are going and how many are ultimately getting to stay in Canada requires a much deeper dig. 

From a national perspective, many of the government departments involved say they are still processing the information, much of which won't be available for a few more months.

But at least for Manitoba, some of it has been fast-tracked. You can't follow individuals, but you can follow the numbers.

Manitoba still has the clearest picture

While 170 people crossed into Manitoba in March, not all are being allowed to file refugee claims. For example, people with criminal backgrounds or who are deemed a danger to the public would likely be detained.

The CBSA says it detained 16 people in March. While it confirms some were border crossers, it won't say exactly how many were, or whether they were all in custody at the same time.

Those people would be held in provincial institutions. Over the last several weeks, the province has consistently said there are between eight and 10 people in custody under CBSA detention at any one time.

The Immigration and Refugee Board says it received 124 Manitoba-based refugee applications for consideration in March. An application must be filed within 72 hours of arrival.

That represents at least 72 per cent of the 170 people who crossed the border that month, given that an IRB "case" can represent more than one person.

That's a sharp increase from the 26 per cent of border crossers who filed a claim the month before. What's still unclear is exactly how many of those people are actually staying in Manitoba. 

Boundary Avenue marks the Canada/U.S. border just east of Emerson, Man. Many asylum seekers have crossed the border right here. (Cameron MacIntosh/CBC)
One telling stat is applications for provincial assistance, also known as employment and income assistance.

Since Jan. 1, a minimum of 134 refugee applicants have qualified for EIA coverage in Manitoba. That represents about 40 per cent of the people who crossed into the province since Jan. 1.

The province says other applications are being processed.

As for where they stayed, 64 were put up in the Salvation Army's downtown Winnipeg shelter, which at one point or another has housed 214 of the 331 people who have crossed into Manitoba between Jan. 1 and March 31.

Will they all get to stay? 

While it's still very early, numbers from the Immigration and Refugee Board are starting to provide insight into where people are coming from, and the success of their applications.

Djibouti (34 per cent), Somalia (30 per cent) and Ghana (10 per cent) top the list of countries of origin for asylum seekers coming into Manitoba. 

Once their refugee application is referred to the IRB, it must be heard within 60 days, meaning cases heard in February and March could involve people who arrived as recently as last December and January. 

It's a very small sample, but of the 14 cases where a decision was reached by the board in February and March, only half resulted in a refugee claim being accepted. That trails the national success rate of asylum seekers of about 63 per cent.

Decisions in many other cases are still pending.

Those who are accepted become refugees in Canada and can apply to become permanent residents, and later citizens.

Those who were denied can appeal, which can take up to 18 months. Otherwise, they face removal from the country.

Meanwhile, many in border communities in Manitoba and Quebec are expecting the April numbers to show increases once again.


Cameron MacIntosh

Senior reporter

Cameron MacIntosh is a senior reporter with CBC national news based in Winnipeg. He has spent most of his career in Western Canada while covering stories across the country and abroad for CBC News.