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    Why So Many Refugees Are Risking Their Lives To Cross The Border Into Canada

    It's only partly because of Trump.

    Hundreds of people have made dangerous journeys across the border into Canada to claim asylum in the last few months. The influx has led to an outpouring of support for refugees, as well as calls for the authorities to do more to curb the crossings. Here's what you need to know.

    Why is everyone talking about this now?


    The epicentre of this phenomenon is the Manitoba border town of Emerson, with a tiny population of 700, which has seen a sharp rise in the number of asylum seekers in the last several months.

    In January, two refugees originally from Ghana suffered severe frostbite after making the trek across the border in –18°C temperatures. Both had fingers amputated as a result, leading to a wave of news stories and national attention on the issue.

    The border crossings have continued, with the Manitoba RCMP picking up 22 refugee claimants just this past weekend. Many are also crossing the border into Quebec.

    Isn't this illegal?

    Sign at Canadian border asking people to please not sneak in.

    Well...yes and no.

    According to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, refugees are allowed to come to a country outside of the official channels. Canada is a signatory to that treaty.

    So while crossing the border outside of a designated port of entry is illegal, refugees are protected from punishment on the grounds that they are fleeing persecution.

    "If it turns out later on that they're bogus or their claim is denied, they can be pursued for that," said Chantal Desloges, an immigration lawyer in Toronto. "But as long as they're an asylum claimant, that law cannot be enforced on them. It's almost not even correct to say they're illegally crossing the border."

    For that reason, some refugee advocates prefer to call them "irregular border crossings" instead of "illegal."

    Why aren't people just claiming asylum at official border crossings?

    Drew Angerer / Getty Images

    The main reason people are risking frostbite or worse to cross the border is because of the Canada–US Safe Third Country Agreement, which came into effect in 2004.

    Under the agreement, refugee claimants coming from the US into Canada are denied entry because the US is deemed a "safe country" where they can also find protection. It also works the other way, for claimants entering the US from Canada.

    The agreement only applies at regulated border crossings, though, so asylum-seekers know that if they can just plant their feet on Canadian soil, Canada's international obligations to refugees kick in. Refugee advocates argue that in order to stop irregular border crossings, the Safe Third Country Agreement has to be suspended.

    "If someone could just show up at the Canada–US border and make a refugee claim properly to an officer, why in the world would they walk around in a farmer's field in the middle of the night in –20?" said Desloges.

    How much of an increase has there been in refugee claims?


    According to the Canada Border Services Agency, the number of refugee claims in Canada has increased each year since 2014, with 2017 on track to continue that trend. There were 937 refugee claims in January alone. (That figure includes claims at official ports of entry as well as those "caught crossing the border illegally," according to a spokesperson.)

    However, those numbers don't necessarily tell the whole story.

    "It's important for people to be aware that the number of refugees in the world is at historic high levels," Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told BuzzFeed News. "Meanwhile, the number of refugee claimants we've had in Canada over the last three years has been much lower than average."

    From 2000 to 2009, there was an average of 31,400 refugee claims to Canada each year. From 2013 to 2015, it was almost two-thirds lower, with an average of 13,300 claims a year, according to the CCR. So while there has been an increase, "the numbers we are talking about in Canada are extremely small compared to what we've seen in the past and compared to what other countries manage," Dench said.

    What happens to asylum-seekers after they get to Canada?

    Paul Chiasson / THE CANADIAN PRESS

    "There's two possible things that could happen," said Desloges.

    "If the person is apprehended, gets caught crossing the border and is taken into custody by the authorities, then they're taken to the nearest immigration or border service office to lodge a claim," she said. "If they're not apprehended, they can go to an immigration office and lodge their own claim."

    Claimants are then interviewed by officers about their personal history, how they got to Canada, and other details. The point of this interview is to weed out people who may be ineligible for various reasons, such as criminal history, Desloges said.

    Once this initial interview is over, asylum-seekers are given a date for an immigration hearing within 60 days and released. Although they are provided temporary health care for this period, they do not receive housing or other benefits.

    "The government doesn't provide them with anything," Desloges said. "They'll basically drop them off at a refugee centre or the Salvation Army or something."

    Some refugee organizations are struggling to keep up. Winnipeg's Welcome Place, which provides temporary housing to newcomers, says it has no more room for people even as refugees continue to arrive.

    Is this happening because of Trump?

    Pool / Getty Images

    The number of asylum-seekers arriving in Canada has jumped since Donald Trump's election as US president in November.

    "We have heard of cases of people who specifically cite what is happening in the US as the reason for coming to Canada," said Dench.

    President Trump has taken a hardline stance on immigration. One of his first acts in office was to sign an executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order barred Syrian refugees indefinitely, and all other refugees for 120 days.

    (The CBSA did not provide numbers on refugee claimants' countries of origin.)

    However, Dench also cautioned against reading too much into the "Trump effect." With about 60 million people displaced around the world, many of the refugees coming across the Canadian border were likely headed here anyway, she said.