Government says there's no 'free ticket' to Canada as number of asylum seekers climbs

The number of asylum seekers illegally crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada continues to climb, but the government says they still represent only a fraction of the total new arrivals to the country.

RCMP intercepts 1,860 people entering country from U.S. in first three months of 2017

The number of asylum seekers illegally crossing into Canada outside official border points continues to climb. (CBC)

The number of asylum seekers illegally crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada continues to climb, but the government says they still represent only a fraction of the total new arrivals to the country.

In March, the RCMP intercepted 887 people entering the country outside an official crossing point, up from 658 in February and 315 in January. That brings the total for the first three months of 2017 to 1,860.

Most of the illegal crossings occurred in Quebec, where 644 people were intercepted by the RCMP. That's up from 432 in February and 245 in January, and brings the total for the three-month period to 1,321.

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, said the vast majority of immigration to Canada is carefully planned and managed and that spontaneous asylum seekers are much smaller and largely unpredictable. 

"These are people who feel they are in danger or at risk, and once they get themselves into Canada by whatever means, they claim asylum in this country for their personal protection," he said. "They represent only a fraction of all the newcomers we welcome every year, and do not impinge on the regular system."

Tracking trends

He said authorities are tracking the trends, planning for possible developments and managing the increase in a measured way while respecting Canada's international obligations.

Bardsley said the majority of irregular migrants hold visas for the U.S., so have already cleared a security screening. Once in Canada, they receive further security screening.

"To be clear, trying to slip across the border in an irregular manner is not a free ticket to Canada," he said, adding that asylum seekers are apprehended and secured by police, their identities determined, health checks performed and records examined for immigration, criminal or terrorist flags in domestic and international databases.

The second busiest province for illegal crossings is Manitoba, where RCMP interceptions climbed to 170 last month, up from 142 the previous month and 19 in January for a total of 331 in the quarter period.

In B.C., the number of people intercepted declined to 71 in March from 84 the month before, and 46 in January, bringing the three-month tally to 201.

There have been only five cases in which people making illegal border crossings were stopped by RCMP in Saskatchewan, one in Alberta and one in New Brunswick in the first three months of 2017. None have been recorded in Ontario.

RCMP officers arrested asylum seekers, claiming to be from Yemen, after they crossed the border from New York into Canada on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in Hemmingford, Que. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

It's not possible to compare figures to previous years as they are not available.

Bardsley said the Canada Border Service Agency and RCMP have made "internal adjustments" to ensure adequate personnel and tools are in place, and will advise the government if extra resources are required. 

Calls for concrete plan

But Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said municipal and provincial officials in the most affected regions need to see a concrete plan in anticipation of a possible spike in coming months. She says the government must explain the impact of the influx on overall immigration levels and budgets, and send a clear message around the world that these crossings are illegal.

"The bottom line is that the government owes the public a plan on how to manage this situation which I think has the potential to turn in to a crisis over the summer," she told CBC News. "This stay silent, go along to get along thing is not productive in the long run. It's not instilling confidence in Canadians that the government can manage the integrity of our border."

Rempel said she supports a proposal by NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan to have MPs on the immigration committee study the issue.

Kwan said the committee could gain a deeper understanding of what is driving the trend and the impact on certain communities by hearing from federal, provincial and municipal officials, academic and legal experts, and asylum seekers themselves. She believes the upswing is primarily due to the actions of U.S. President Donald Trump, but says the Liberal government refuses to acknowledge it.

'Heads in the sand'

"Sticking their heads in the sand is not going to solve the problem," she told CBC.

Kwan said the government must rethink its decision not to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires refugee claimants to claim refugee protection in the first safe country they arrive in, unless they qualify for an exception spelled out in the agreement.

The agreement applies only to refugee claimants trying to enter at official land border crossings, by train or at airports, which is why some are making the trek into Canada outside official points.

Anyone who is detected by the RCMP outside official points of entry is warned they are entering the country illegally and advised of the nearest official border crossing point.