Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his government is "very concerned" about a recent influx of refugee claimants in a small southern Manitoba border town, emphasizing the need to protect both the incoming asylum seekers and Canada's border.
Speaking to the daily Question Period Wednesday, Mr. Trudeau said that while Canada is always welcoming to vulnerable people, the government needs to make sure it's doing so the "right way."
"We need to make sure that we are protecting the integrity of the Canadian border, the strength of our immigration and refugee system, and demonstrating that we are there for the security of communities and individuals," Mr. Trudeau said in response to a question from NDP Leader Tom Mulcair.
The Prime Minister's comments come as Emerson, Man., a small town of 700 located across the border from North Dakota, pleads for federal help amid the arrival of dozens of refugee claimants who have braved the harsh prairie winter to cross into Canada.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale was hesitant to link the increase in asylum seekers crossing into Emerson to U.S. President Donald Trump's recent executive orders on immigration and refugees.
"The number has gone up over the course of the last four years or so, but the number today is substantially down …from where it was 10 years ago," Mr. Goodale told reporters on Parliament Hill.
"These numbers fluctuate dramatically from time to time. Looking at a narrow window of time may not give you an accurate picture of what the reality is."
The number of refugee claimants who illegally cross the border into Manitoba has been roughly doubling in recent years, according to statistics provided by the Canada Border Services Agency. The CBSA reported 68 such cases in the 2013-14 fiscal year, 136 in 2014-15 and 321 in 2015-16. In the current fiscal year, the CBSA has already recorded 403 cases since April.
Winnipeg immigration lawyer Bashir Khan is handling a number of those cases. He said Legal Aid Manitoba has referred 17 asylum seekers to him for legal representation, many of which arrived in what he calls an unprecedented act of desperation. However, he says the Trump directive has nothing to do with the influx of refugee claimants in Emerson, but rather an existing policy that allows for the expedited removal of illegal immigrants.
"All of this was being done under Obama … but I think that there has been a speeding up of that removal and because of the speeding up, people are coming in the winter which they don't normally because it's deadly in the open prairie field," Mr. Khan said.
Ted Falk, MP for the riding of Provencer, which includes Emerson, said he has spoken to Mr. Goodale about the pressure the arrivals are putting on border towns. He said he's waiting to hear back from the minister.
"Folks coming across the border illegally then claiming refugee status here, it's putting a burden on the resources of a municipality that's been providing care and hospice and straining the resources of RCMP in the area," Mr. Falk said.
Unlike most asylum seekers who arrive at the Canadian land border via the United States, refugee claimants crossing through the border fields near Emerson aren't turned away immediately. That's because they do not fall under the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires that people be sent back across the border if they claim refugee status after entering Canada through the United States, which is considered a "safe third country" by the Canadian government. Because the agreement only applies to individuals who arrive at an official land border port of entry, refugee claimants who cross at places like Emerson and make an asylum claim at an inland office in Canada cannot be rejected under the agreement, according to Mr. Khan.
However, a group of 235 Canadian legal scholars are still calling on the Canadian government to halt the Safe Third Country Agreement, after a new report by the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic argues that the United States can no longer be considered a "safe" country for refugees.
"Wringing of hands and expressing of concern is insufficient," Queen's University law professor Sharry Aiken said of the government's response to the calls to suspend the agreement.