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Ottawa braces for rise in asylum seekers fleeing U.S.

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale speaks to the media after a visit with officials at the fire hall in Emerson, Manitoba, on March 4, 2017.

JOHN WOODS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal officials are preparing for all scenarios involving the influx of asylum seekers from the United States, from a further rise in numbers in coming weeks to spring floods that could put migrants at risk in Manitoba.

The heads of the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency have reassured the Liberal cabinet that they have enough resources to control the current situation, while providing the government with plans for all foreseeable situations.

Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 21 of this year, the federal government dealt with nearly 4,000 asylum cases from the United States, compared with 2,500 in the same time frame in 2016.

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Following the Midwest Passage: Asylum seekers take a cold journey to Manitoba via Trump's America

There is widespread speculation the numbers could continue to rise as the cold weather subsides and as the Trump administration in the United States imposes restrictions on immigration and refugees.

"At the moment, the RCMP and the CBSA have affirmed to me and to the Prime Minister and to the cabinet that the resources they have and the legal tools that they have are appropriate and sufficient to enforce the law, and they are enforcing all of Canadian law," Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

"If they feel there is a tool or more resources that they need to deal with the situation, they will certainly let us know," he said.

Mr. Goodale added contingency planning is continuing, pointing to the fact the Red River goes through Emerson, Man., which has been a key entry point for illegal immigrants. He said the government must be ready for spring floods.

"We are doing the scenario planning," he said. "We want to do our homework properly and not just idly speculate about what ifs. We want to do our homework properly, so as the circumstances evolve – and the numbers may go up, the numbers may go down – we want to make sure that we've thought it through in advance."

The RCMP have arrested hundreds of asylum seekers so far this year. After conducting security checks, the Mounties transferred all of them to the CBSA. It is now up to the Immigration and Refugee Board to determine their status. Some of them risk being returned to the United States or another country.

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"Our officials are working around the clock to make sure that we maintain the integrity of our borders while remaining a compassionate country," Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen told reporters. "When folks get on our soil, we have an obligation to at least give them a fair hearing, and after being assessed on its merits, if it's found that their case lacks merit, there is removal processes in place."

Mr. Goodale added: "There may be this kind of assumption that somehow you jump across the border and that's kind of a free ticket to Canada. Well, it's not."

Mr. Hussen said discussions are continuing with U.S. officials to manage the numbers of asylum seekers moving north.

"Some of these individuals who are coming across our borders never intended to stay in the United States and Canada, for them, was always the destination," he told reporters, using the example of asylum seekers with valid U.S. visas. "That is something, obviously, that we can work closely with the Americans to address."

While the cases are being reviewed, Mr. Hussen said his department "has been working closely with settlement agencies that are relieving the pressure from the border communities and taking some of these asylum seekers to larger cities where there are more supports to help them."

There have historically been large variations in the arrival of asylum seekers in Canada. In 2001, for example, there were nearly 45,000 cases, compared with 10,400 in 2013. Last year, Canada dealt with 24,000 asylum claims.

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