In January and February, a total of 525 air travellers — 400 in Ontario, 90 in Quebec, 35 in British Columbia and nine in Alberta — sought asylum upon arrival at airports, said the Canada Border Services Agency.
By contrast, 2,145 people crossed at official land border ports of entry and made refugee claims during the same period, including 1,085 in Quebec, 905 in Ontario, 80 in Manitoba, and 35 each in Alberta and British Columbia.
In addition to the migrants who made it through the border either legally or illegally and later filed what are known as “inland” claims, Canada received claims from a total of 5,520 refugees in the two months — a 48 per cent increase from the same period a year ago. The numbers of claimants arriving at land border crossings and airports for the same period of 2016 were not immediately available.
Given Canada’s geographical isolation and the popularity of the United States as a destination for migrants, experts say, Ottawa historically received more refugees by air than at land borders.
However, from 2013 to 2016, with tightening air travel restrictions, claims at airport arrivals have been surpassed by claims made at land ports of entry from the U.S. by a one-to-two ratio.
Experts say the sudden rise in land border claims can be attributed to the anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration as well as Canada’s full implementation of the new electronic travel authorization, or eTA, a screening mechanism that applies also to visa-exempt air passengers.
“(The) airport was the easiest way, but because of the visa requirements, it is becoming more difficult to travel here by air than by land, and it is easier to get a visa to the U.S. than to Canada,” said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Dench said that in years past, the council received monthly statistics from the Immigration Department on asylum claims, before the former Conservative government stopped providing the information in 2010.
Dench cautioned that it is hard to make out any trend and explain the surge in land border claims based on two months of statistics because there could be other factors at play.
“It could be just a question of resource availability. The inland office may have fewer resources and can’t give out as many appointments to take in asylum claims,” Dench explained.
“The airport claims can go up and down depending on weather and changes to visa requirements.”
The number of refugee claimants arriving in Canada hit rock bottom at 10,370 in 2013, the year after the Conservative government revamped the asylum system to expedite processing of claims, reduce health care for refugees and deport failed claimants quicker.
Since then it has crept up and reached 23,895 in 2016, a year after the Liberal government came into power and adopted a more friendly approach toward immigrants and refugees.
Osgoode Hall Law School professor Sean Rehaag believed asylum trends have much to do with the political climate in refugee receiving countries.
“Claims made in Canada dropped after 2012 with the language of the government to get tough on asylum-seekers. People understood the reception in Canada was not going to be as welcoming as in the past,” said Rehaag, who specializes in immigration and refugee law.
“The general climate in the U.S. under the Trump administration makes certain group of people feel not welcomed there. It is not surprising they are coming to Canada to make claims.”
While Canada’s 2017 asylum claimants could easily reach 33,000 if the upward trend continues, Rehaag said that would still be under the peak of 40,000 in the early 2000s.
“We are not at an unusually high level. Comparing to many countries, we have had far fewer asylum seekers. Turkey and Jordan are taking in millions of refugees,” said Rehaag.
“When we talk about the increasing numbers of refugees crossing the border, we do need to keep the broader context in mind.”