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Asylum seeker Taiba Nuri is followed by her husband Mahamed Yusef Niazi, from Afghanistan, carrying their seven-month-old daughter Sahaba, across the border at Roxham Road from New York into Canada on March 24 in Champlain, NY.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Canada is experiencing a surge of asylum claims being made at domestic airports after a contentious move by the federal government to waive certain requirements for thousands of visitor visa applicants.

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has processed more than 26,000 asylum claimants at airports through September this year, an increase of 54 per cent from last year’s total, according to figures from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). While the numbers have been rising since 2022, the trend accelerated in the spring.

In March, the federal government closed Roxham Road, a popular route into Quebec for those seeking asylum in Canada. The closure has forced would-be claimants to find new entry points.

But there was another, less-publicized move, that likely contributed to the trend. Earlier this year, Ottawa waived some eligibility requirements for visitor visa applicants – in particular, those individuals no longer have to prove they have sufficient funds to stay in Canada or demonstrate they will leave the country when their visas expire. The policy went into effect on Feb. 28 and lasts through the end of 2023.

The Globe and Mail reported in January that IRCC was considering such a move, after the newspaper was leaked a government document that outlined ways to reduce a significant volume of visa applications.

The memo said that not all applicants for temporary resident visas, or TRVs, would be “genuine visitors,” and that in waiving eligibility requirements for those individuals, it could lead to an additional 8,600 asylum claims.

Still, Ottawa pressed ahead with the plan – although it didn’t disclose anything publicly until June, four months after the policy took effect. Radio-Canada was first to report on the change.

“The percentage of people coming to Canada on a TRV and claiming asylum remains low compared to the overall volume of TRVs the department typically issues each year,” IRCC spokesperson Mary Rose Sabater said in a statement. “In the current reality of increasing global migration, Canada, like many other countries, is experiencing a rise in the number of people claiming asylum.”

Many people connected to the immigration system, including lawyers and government employees, have criticized Ottawa’s approach to expediting the processing of applications. They say the immigration department is not performing its due diligence in screening all visitors, while also putting stress on the refugee system, which was already struggling to accommodate a rush of people seeking protection in Canada.

The change “makes our immigration system seem unreliable,” said Zeynab Ziaie Moayyed, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. It’s “a short-sighted way to reduce that backlog, but creates all kinds of other problems.”

At times last year, there were more than 2.6 million applications in IRCC’s inventories, including for visitor visas, work and study permits and permanent residency. As of Aug. 31, there were 2.2 million applications in the queue.

The IRCC memo, which dates to December, said waiving eligibility requirements would apply to roughly 450,000 TRV applications in the system.

The document said the stockpile of applications was “eroding the public’s trust” in the department and its ability to manage migration. Hopeful immigrants and visitors often complain that it can take years for the government to render a decision on their files.

“The accumulated visitor visa inventory is limiting Canada’s attractiveness for tourists and business persons, in addition to keeping families separated,” the government said on a webpage that announced the policy change. “Facilitating the processing of applications currently in the inventory by streamlining eligibility requirements will position Canada for a clean start and a return to pre-pandemic processing times, thereby ensuring our international competitiveness moving forward.”

The measure applies to visitor visa applications that were in the system by Jan. 16, coinciding with the date of The Globe’s story on the policies under consideration.

The government also waived a requirement – the need for foreign nationals to establish that they will leave the country by the end of their authorized stays – for those seeking “super visas,” which allow parents and grandparents of Canadian citizens or permanent residents to visit the country for five years at a time.

Despite the exemptions, prospective visitors are still subject to other screening procedures, such as those ensuring they aren’t a known threat to national security.

In a statement, the CBSA said it has seen an increase in the number of asylum claimants in recent weeks at airports, including Montréal–Trudeau International Airport and Toronto Pearson International Airport. The agency said the claimants were mainly from Mexico, India, Kenya, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and Uganda.

Federal data show that a majority of asylum claims made at airports occur in Quebec. Eric Forest, a spokesperson for Trudeau International Airport, said it is “not suited to receive a large number of asylum seekers daily nor should it be its mandate.”

The IRCC memo outlined the pros and cons of using “aggressive measures” to reduce its inventory of visa applications, which it described as a crisis situation. Among the drawbacks, there would be “increased pressure” on the asylum system, including for the CBSA, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, hotels and airlines.

As of June 30, there were more than 103,000 refugee protection claims pending at the IRB, an increase of 47 per cent over six months.

Ms. Ziaie Moayyed questioned why IRCC would waive some requirements when it already has methods to process applications in bulk.

“They could have used the technology tools they have to process those applications,” she said. “It wouldn’t have created this really bad precedent that Canada will, at some point, if pushed, allow a large number of applications to go through without any eligibility assessment.”

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