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A Saskatchewan woman has been charged with human smuggling after RCMP intercepted a vehicle carrying nine refugee claimants who authorities believe crossed the border from the United States.

Reuters/Reuters

A Saskatchewan woman has been charged with human smuggling after nine foreign nationals were intercepted crossing into Canada from the United States, shining a light on the predatory nature of the practice as illegal border crossings rise across Canada.

Mounties stopped the nine foreign nationals in a vehicle being driven by the Canadian woman between the North Portal and Northgate ports of entry at the Saskatchewan-U.S. border on April 14. The woman was arrested at the scene, while the nine foreigners were turned over to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The woman, identified as Michelle Omoruyi, 43, of Regina, has been charged with one count each of human smuggling under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and conspiracy to commit human smuggling under the Criminal Code of Canada. Authorities are not identifying the age, sex or nationalities of the nine foreigners, but say they are from West Africa.

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Across Canada, police intercepted 887 people crossing into the country in March, up from 658 in February and 315 in January, according to figures released Wednesday. The majority of asylum seekers crossed into Quebec, which received 71 per cent of Canada's first-quarter total. Recent months have seen a growing tide of people, fearful of tightening borders and an immigration ban from certain Muslim-majority countries under the Trump administration in the United States, risking their lives to go north.

The tide of migrants has also opened opportunities for people who would prey on them, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States requires refugees to claim asylum in the first country they reach. That means those trying to come into Canada from the United States at a port of entry would be barred from making their claim in Canada.

"The impact of the Safe Third Country Agreement has been to give business to people smugglers, to force people who are trying to save their lives as refugees to turn to people who are trying to make money off this situation," Ms. Dench said.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Grand Forks Sector says it also arrested "several" people in relation to this investigation, but have not provided any details.

Inspector Donovan Fisher, officer in charge of federal operations and national security for RCMP F Division (Saskatchewan), said last week's incident is part of Project Fadduce, a continuing human-smuggling investigation involving both Canadian and American authorities that began in December.

However, police in the province also enhanced border patrols in February. "Based on intel and trends across the country, we thought it would be prudent to maybe look at some extra resources and coverage until we're more confident that everything is good," Insp. Fisher said.

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Last Friday's arrests came after U.S. border authorities identified a Project Fadduce suspect as he crossed into North Dakota. They notified CBSA, who in turn told RCMP that a smuggling attempt may be imminent.

The following day, Regina police and CBSA executed a search warrant at a residence in Regina, seizing "evidence and a significant amount of cash." Much of that money was foreign currency, Insp. Fisher said.

Ms. Omoruyi's first court appearance is scheduled for May 15. The nine foreign nationals were released into Canada and have made claims for refugee protection, CBSA assistant director Jason Evert said.

Ms. Dench said smugglers take advantage of people not knowing that they don't need to pay somebody to cross. "To avoid the Safe Third Country [Agreement], you just need to present yourself at some point other than the port of entry," she said.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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