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The number of asylum seekers who entered Canada through unauthorized border crossings in the first five months of 2019 fell by nearly half from the same period last year, government statistics show.

Numbers from the Immigration Department show 5,140 irregular asylum seekers – people who enter Canada between official border crossings – entered the country between January and May of this year, 46 per cent fewer people than the 9,481 asylum seekers who crossed during the same time frame in 2018. A spokeswoman for Border Security Minister Bill Blair said the government’s outreach efforts with potential asylum-seeker communities have helped keep numbers down, but Canada stands ready to respond to any future spikes in crossings.

“We have undertaken significant outreach strategies to correct misinformation about our asylum system and we remain prepared to address fluctuations in the number of people crossing our borders irregularly,“ said Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux.

In past years, Canada has seen an increase in the number of irregular asylum seekers during the summer months. The number of crossings peaked in August, 2017, at 5,712 in a single month.

However, the number of monthly crossings has dropped since and has continued to decline this year, from 1,246 in April to 1,196 in May.

The decline in irregular asylum seekers comes as the federal parties enter pre-election season this summer. Pollster Nik Nanos said immigration is a “flare-up issue” for Canadian voters. Only 3 per cent of Canadians currently consider immigration to be the most important national issue of concern, according to Nanos Research’s most recent opinion tracking. But that could change quickly during this fall’s election, Mr. Nanos said.

“Things that would trigger a flare-up are basically items in the news related to individuals showing up irregularly and there being a problem at the border,” Mr. Nanos said.

The Nanos Research survey is based on phone surveys of 1,000 Canadians over a four-week period ending June 14; the survey uses a four-week average of 250 respondents each week. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said her party does not want to make immigration an election issue, but the Liberal government’s failure to manage the asylum-seeker file has forced the matter into the spotlight.

“This particular issue has become a flash point," Ms. Rempel said. "The failure to stop the abuse of the asylum system I think has bled over into questions about the integrity of the immigration system, writ large.”

More than 45,000 irregular asylum seekers have entered Canada since U.S. President Donald Trump launched his crackdown on illegal immigration 2½ years ago.

They have been allowed to remain in Canada through a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires Canada and the United States to refuse entry to most asylum seekers who arrive at official points of entry along the shared border, as both countries are considered safe for refugees. However, since the agreement applies only to those who arrive at official points of entry, asylum seekers can avoid being immediately turned away by crossing between border posts, requiring Canada to process most of their claims.

The Liberal government is working with the United States to revamp the agreement so Canada can turn away more asylum seekers, but no formal talks have been launched.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the Liberal government’s proposed changes to the country’s asylum policy may be deterring people from seeking protection in Canada.

“The government is just generally sending a message to asylum seekers to say that Canada’s no longer a safe haven for you. That has been their M.O. for some time now,” Ms. Kwan said.

The government recently proposed changes that would prevent asylum seekers who have already made a refugee claim in the United States, Britain, Australia or New Zealand from having access to a full refugee hearing by an independent tribunal. Rather, they would be offered a pre-removal risk assessment, which is overseen by the Immigration Department instead of the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).

The IRB process allows for two levels of appeal but a person who is ordered deported after a pre-removal risk assessment can appeal only to the Federal Court.

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