The number of asylum seekers crossing the border illegally from the U.S. into Canada has been rising rapidly since the turn of the year, keeping Canadian police and refugee officials busy. During the first two months of 2017, 1,134 asylum seekers were intercepted by Canadian police guarding the borders while crossing over from the U.S. into Canada. The number is already nearly half the total of illegal border crossers arrested during 2016. Most of them have been arrested when they tried to enter Quebec from New York. (Of the total, 677 were caught in Quebec, 161 in Manitoba, 291 in British Columbia and five in Saskatchewan.)
Most of these asylum seekers are fleeing the United States following a crackdown by President Donald Trump on illegal immigrants, migrants and refugees. Janet Dench, executive director of the Montreal-based Canadian Council for Refugees, said Trump’s policies had been a contributing factor to illegal crossings. “Some people who have been coming to Canada have said that they had been in the U.S., had not planned to come to Canada but now feel unsafe in the United States,” she said. (Globe and Mail, March 24)
In the first two months of this year, the federal government dealt with 5,520 claims for asylum, including those asylum seekers from the U.S. who cross the Canadian border illegally on foot, compared with 2,500 in the same time frame in 2016. If this high pace of influx continues, asylum seekers would easily exceed the 2016 total of 23,895 and reach more than 30,000.
It is those asylum seekers from the U.S. that are making the headline almost every day in Canadian media, arousing sympathy of people in the world, who saw images of families, arriving on foot in deep snow and freezing temperature near the border in Quebec and Manitoba, dragging suitcases, to be arrested by RCMP officers for illegally crossing the border and taken to custody.
Especially, moving many Canadians and striking the chord of people in the world were images reported by Canadian media of a young girl, carrying her doll and small suitcase, while her family from Turkey being escorted by RCMP officers as they illegally cross the Canada-U.S. border into Hemmingford, and a man carrying several bags in one hand and his young son in the other as he wades the snowy marshland to illegally cross the border into Canada.
Most of these asylum seekers are those from Muslim-majority countries, or those who have been staying and even working in the U.S. for many years since they smuggled into the U.S. – who fear they might be caught and deported by the Trump administration. In January, Trump issued an executive order that put a temporary ban on allowing refugees into the country, an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria, and a 90-day ban on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. Iraq was removed from the list in the second version of the ban. Refugees from Djibouti and Romania – many of whom are illegal immigrants in the U.S. – are reported to be increasing.
Furthermore, encouraging those illegal border crossers into Canada is the announcement by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that his country would welcome those fleeing persecution after Trump issued the executive order.
These asylum seekers make more difficult and dangerous, sometimes deadly, illegal crossing the border on foot into Canada, rather than through the official border crossings, because of the 2004 Canada-U.S. “Safe Third Country Agreement,” under which Canada does not allow foreign refugees claimants who landed in the U.S. through its official border crossings. But if they can physically get onto Canadian soil any way, they will be arrested, detained, released and given an assessment, a hearing and a right to appeal. (Globe and Mail, Feb. 24)
f they are illegal migrants in the U.S., they would immediately be sent back to the U.S. and deported, when they claim refugees in Canada at the official crossings.
Hemmingford, a small town of 800 residents near the border in southern Quebec, directly south of Montreal, is called the “Gateway to Canada.” Most asylum seekers from the U.S. head for the Canadian town by walking down the snowy road surrounded by thick forests from Champlain, northeaster edge of New York State, where they arrive by bus or even by taxi paying exceptionally expensive fare.
Another key entry point for these asylum seekers from the U.S. is Emerson, Manitoba, where they arrive through frigid wilds of Minnesota. There is a community of Somalians in Minneapolis. In early March, the worst blizzard of the season raged in the area. Some of the asylum seekers were blown off by the snow storm with winds reaching 100km per hour, but, luckily, no one was killed.
Federal officials are stepping up preparations for all scenarios involving the influx of asylum seekers from the U.S. – from a further rise in numbers in coming weeks and months to spring floods that could put migrants at risk in Manitoba.
ublic Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says that contingency planning is continuing, involving RCMP and CBSA (Canada Border Services agency), pointing to the fact that the Red River goes through Emerson, and that the government must be ready for spring floods. He announced in Emerson an additional federal support of $30,000 for the town.
When spring comes, it will become much easier for these illegal asylum seekers to cross the border, while crossing the snowy border on foot in the freezing-cold winter is a dangerous tour for them even though the border is unguarded at most points without fences or walls.
Canada is a country with huge land. It receives as many as 300,000 immigrants annually this year to sustain the economic vitality. In addition, it takes some 40,000 refugees from abroad, through strict security and other reviews. (In 2016, Canada accepted 55,800 refugees, because of the special quota for Syrian refugees.) To allow refugee seekers from the U.S. to stay in Canada, it will cost the federal government considerable additional budget to finance, first controlling the illegal border crossers, and then keeping them for years in Canada until decision on their status is made by authorities.
In towns like Emerson and Hemmingford, many of the communities organize volunteers to help the asylum seekers from the U.S. Some of them even build housing facilities for the asylum seekers. But, these towns’ few ambulances and paramedics are always preoccupied with attending these asylum seekers and townspeople will be left without ambulance services, according to media reports.
As spring nears in these northern regions and problems of refugee seekers’ influx threaten to be prolonged, recent polls show that nearly half of Canadians think that Canada should not let asylum seeker into the country any more. Some 48% respondents said they supported “increasing the deportation of people living in Canada illegally,” according to the Reuters/Ipsos opinion polls taken in early March. Meanwhile 36% supported the federal government policy, saying Ottawa is doing good job about the asylum refugees. However, opposition parties, especially the Conservatives, argue those illegal border crossers make Canada “less safe” and that they should be deported to the U.S. upon being arrested. They say images of asylum seekers illegally walking into Canada, crossing the unguarded 8,900 km long border, give an impression to terrorists that Canada is a country they can easily enter, to put the country’s security at risk.
Prime Minister Trudeau seems to be stubbornly sticking to his policies friendly and compassionate to refugees and asylum seekers. And President Trump does not seem to relax his tough immigration policies soon.
By Yoshikazu Ishizuka, Senior Consultant, TOCS