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Confusion over the number of asylum seekers who have been removed from Canada led to an apology on Monday from Border Security Minister Bill Blair – and attracted fresh calls from Opposition MPs for more action to address ongoing border woes.

On the weekend, Mr. Blair created a hornet’s nest of criticism when he told Global News in an interview that the “overwhelming majority” of asylum seekers who have crossed into Canada over the past 21 months have left the country.

But the government’s own numbers tell a different story.

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Newly released figures show Canadian officials have removed only a handful of the hundreds of asylum seekers who arrived in Canada while they were already facing deportation orders from the United States.

The numbers, tabled recently in the House of Commons, show almost 900 asylum seekers intercepted by the Mounties in Canada since April, 2017, were already under removal orders issued by U.S. authorities.

As of late June, only six of these people had been removed from Canada.

Meanwhile, the over all number of asylum seekers who have been deported or removed from Canada also remains low. Since early 2017, more than 34,000 asylum seekers have crossed into Canada through unofficial points. To date, only 398 – or about one per cent – have been removed.

Mr. Blair issued an apology on Monday afternoon, saying he “clearly misspoke” when he said the majority had left the country.

“They have not. They await disposition of their claim. Sorry for the obvious confusion that I caused,” he said.

Later, he explained to reporters that he was trying to explain a different point, but that he “did so inadequately” and immediately took steps to clarify his remarks and apologize, first in a tweet on Sunday and later in the formal statement issued on Monday afternoon.

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As for why the number of removals remains so low, he explained that border officials can only remove failed refugee claimants after they have exhausted all legal options available to try for refugee status. These options include applications to the Immigration and Refugee Board, appeals and other administrative measures.

Canada has a legal responsibility under United Nations obligations to allow refugee claimants access to all these legal avenues.

“They’ve made application and are entitled to due process,” Mr. Blair said.

“Only upon the conclusion of all of those processes can steps then be taken to remove those individuals that are not eligible. That’s what I was trying to explain but did so poorly on Friday.”

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel says she believes the numbers suggest Canada’s immigration system is being tied up by people who are not legitimate refugees.

The extensive processing backlog that exists for refugee claims is creating an incentive for people looking to take advantage of Canada’s refugee system, knowing they could wait an average of 20 months before their refugee claims are processed, Ms. Rempel says.

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“In a properly functioning asylum system, we should be prioritizing the world’s most vulnerable, we should be processing asylum claims quickly and then removing people who don’t have a legal reason to be in Canada,” she said.

“The fact that even those that have been processed and don’t have a valid reason to be in Canada have not been removed is something that is concerning, because Canadians are footing the bill for them being in Canada.”

She renewed calls for government to renegotiate the terms of the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States. The agreement has been cited as a major factor in the ongoing stream of asylum seekers crossing the border through unofficial entry points. The agreement prevents asylum seekers from asking for refugee protection when they present themselves at an official port of entry, which is why thousands have crossed into Canada between those official points of entry.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan says Canada should suspend the agreement altogether, negating the need for people to cross illegally.

“It’s almost been two years, and to this day government has been dealing with it, in my view, with a very ad hoc, reactionary approach and that clearly is not good enough,” she said.

“The longer they refuse to act, the more they allow for those who want to fan division and fear to continue, and that is bad for all of us.”

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The government has earmarked $74-million over the next two years to allow the arm’s-length board that processes refugee claims to hire more staff to help speed up finalizations of claims.

In addition, the government has been working with consulates and embassies in the United States and has sent officials to Nigeria – where the majority of asylum seekers are coming from this year – to get the message out that entering Canada at unofficial entry points is “not a free ticket” into the country.

The Canadian Press

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