Refugee claims at Canada-U.S. border have doubled over past 2 years
The number of refugee claims made at the border has more than doubled over the past two years, surging to 7,023 in 2016, according to the Canada Border Services Agency.
By comparison, 4,316 people sought refugee status in Canada at land border crossings in 2015 and another 3,747 did in 2014.
But the spike isn't unusual and represents a return to the volume of refugees Canada has previously received, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees.
"The numbers may look high, but that is because the range you are looking at is one where Canada has been receiving unusually low numbers of claimants," Dench said in an email interview, noting that there were more than 8,000 land border claims made annually from 1999 to 2004.
"So in the longer perspective, 7,000 is not a very large number," Dench explained.
Canada changed the way it receives refugees in 2004 with the introduction of the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. The agreement says that people seeking protection must make their claim in the first country they arrive in. Canada must accordingly send asylum seekers trying to cross at the border back to the U.S.
21.3 million refugees around the world
In 2016, the largest group of people making refugee claims at border crossings in Canada came from Colombia, followed by Syria, Eritrea, Iraq and Burundi. There were 21.3 million refugees around the globe in 2015, according to the United Nations.
Lorne Waldman, a Toronto-based lawyer who specializes in immigration and refugee law, attributes the recent rise to geopolitical instability. For example, there was a dramatic rise in Turkish refugee claims in Canada following the coup in Turkey.
"The numbers tell stories and the stories are really related to what's happening politically," he said, noting that Canada observed a rise in Pakistani refugee seekers that arrived via the U.S. following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Waldman said the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise to crack down on immigration and recently tried to enact a controversial travel ban restricting travel from seven Muslim majority countries, likely contributed to the bump.
"As the situation deteriorates in the U.S., the likelihood that we're going to see more people crossing is very high," he said.
But, Waldman noted that there has long been a perception among asylum seekers — even before Trump took office — that the U.S. is not sympathetic to refugee claims.
In recent months, hundreds of refugee claimants have made long journeys north, walking through snowy fields and across the border into Canada. Razak Iyal, a 35-year-old Ghanian refugee, came to Manitoba from North Dakota on Christmas Eve. He suffered frostbite on his journey and had all of his fingers amputated, save for his thumbs.
"For now, I think, because of what's going on in the States now, I think more people will decide that 'Let's come to Canada and try our best,'" he said.
"Because most of the people are in the situation that when they go back to their home country, some of them [are] going to suffer of torture, some of them are going to go to prison for all of their lives, some of them are thinking they are going to [be] killed.