A primer on illegal border crossings and Hamilton’s role
THE NEWS PHOTO OF A QUEBEC RCMP OFFICER lifting a child over a snow bank and into Canada near the U.S. border last week has crystallized attention on refugees fleeing the United States. National and local agencies expect illegal crossings at unguarded border points to increase as deportation fears rise in the U.S., and as warmer weather makes it easier to walk through fields and wilderness to get here. Here are some answers about why this is happening, what happens when people get here, refugee laws and the situation in Ontario:
Why are people crossing illegally?
Some people in the U.S. without permanent refugee or immigrant status now feel unsafe because of the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim measures adopted by the new Trump administration. They walk through fields and wilderness, sometimes in darkness, to get to the border and cross into Canada in unguarded areas. They do this to avoid official border crossings where they will be turned back. The RCMP say crossing the Canadian border without reporting to a port of entry is illegal. At official border crossings, many refugee claimants are denied entry and turned back because of the 2004 Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. The Agreement closes the door to refugee claimants from the U.S. and vice-versa — with some exceptions — because each country considers the other safe for refugees.
How many have crossed illegally since Trump became president?
The RCMP and Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) did not provide numbers.
Where are they crossing?
Mainly near border towns in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia.
Are any in Hamilton?
Yes. A few have made their way to Hamilton since Trump’s election.
What happens when they cross illegally?
RCMP officers meet refugees at the border and to them it is an offence to cross, and if they do, they will be arrested — which is what the asylum seekers want, so they can then make a refugee claim. Refugee lawyers say international laws protect refugees crossing in this manner — so if they claim refugee status, police, after completing criminal background checks, take them to the CBSA for processing. If the CBSA determines they are eligible to make a claim, it is referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada for a hearing and they are released on conditions (unless detained because they cannot be identified, are a threat, or at risk of skipping their hearing).
Many then stay with friends or at a shelter.
Hamilton refugee lawyer Lily Tekle says a federal Order in Council ensures all claimants, once deemed eligible to make a claim, get a “refugee claimant identification,” which immediately gives them interim federal health care. Citizenship and Immigration Canada says they may also be entitled to social assistance, education, emergency housing and legal aid while awaiting a decision on their claim. Most can also apply for a work permit after undergoing a medical exam.
Has there been an influx of people into Canada in recent weeks?
Yes, according to the RCMP and CBSA, with the largest influx seen in Quebec. At least 82 people have illegally crossed into Manitoba since Jan. 1, according to media reports. No numbers were available for Quebec or B.C.
How many have illegally crossed into Ontario?
The RCMP says it doesn’t know of any. It is difficult to cross into Ontario without hitting an official border crossing because of the Great Lakes and rivers separating the province from the U.S. However, some claimants who crossed illegally into Quebec have made their way to Ontario where they have friends or to look for work. Matthew House Refugee Ministry in Fort Erie has had claimants who crossed in Quebec and two in late October who said they came across the Niagara River with the help of smugglers.
On what conditions are claimants at legal border crossings allowed in?
The following Safe Third Country Agreement exceptions must be met: You have close family in Canada; are a child under 18 travelling alone; have a valid Canadian visa, work or study permit; or you face the death penalty in your country or the U.S. The Canadian Council for Refugees says the number of legal claimants from the U.S. has been steadily increasing since 2014 because of the highest number of world refugees since the Second World War.
How many refugees enter Ontario at legal border crossings per year?
2014: 2,601 2015: 2,742 2016: 3,865 January 2017: 433
Will there be more illegal crossings?
Authorities and refugee support agencies expect the numbers coming across illegally from the United States to increase, especially in the spring and summer when warmer weather makes it easier to walk across the unprotected parts of the border.