New Brunswick saw spike in refugee claimants at U.S. border in 2016

Family members from Somalia are escorted by RCMP officers after crossing the U.S.-Canada border near Hemmingford, Que., on Friday, February 17, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

The number of refugee claimants crossing into New Brunswick from the United States saw a significant increase last year.

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According to figures released by the Canadian Border Services Agency, there were 23 refugee claimants at the border in 2016 – more than the previous four years combined.

The numbers include those seeking asylum at official points of entry, and those stopped by police after crossing in remote locations.

There were seven refugee claimants in each year between 2011 and 2013, four in 2014 and only two in 2015.

According to the border agency, there was one refugee claimant at the New Brunswick border last month.

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“The driving force behind a lot of people coming to Canada – either immigrating through established streams of coming as refugees – is that they want a safe place to live and raise their family,” said Alex LeBlanc, executive director of the New Brunswick Multicultural Council.

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LeBlanc said he’s at a loss to explain the spike in the numbers last year.

A growing number of people are choosing to walk across the border into Canada to claim refugee status, including dozens who have been arrested in the Emerson area of Manitoba in recent weeks. Other provinces including Quebec have also seen a large rise in the number of refugee claimants who enter the province illegally.

The tactic is a way to avoid the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which prevents most people who have been living in the United States from making a refugee claim at an official border crossing on the premise that they are already somewhere safe.

This has prompted some people to cross elsewhere in order to make their claims from within Canada, where authorities generally grant them a hearing.

Communications staff at the Canadian Border Services Agency would not speculate if Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and victory in the U.S. has had any impact on the numbers.

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READ MORE: Why are asylum seekers crossing into Canada on foot and what are their rights?

They declined an interview and would not provide a breakdown of the numbers to show how many people claimed refugee status at recognized border points and those stopped by the RCMP at remote locations.

“Should a person be intercepted entering Canada between a port of entry, the RCMP will return that person to a port of entry for screening by border services officers. The statistics provided to you included all refugee claims processed at land ports of entry, including those intercepted by the RCMP between designated border crossings. We do not break these statistics down further,” they said in an email.

LeBlanc said he’s alarmed that people are risking their lives to cross the border in remote areas and in bad weather, but he understands why some have decided to flee the United States.

“I think there is legitimate cause for concern for people living in the U.S. and could see deportation to unsafe environments in their home countries,” he said.

LeBlanc said he’s unaware of anyone who has crossed into New Brunswick in a remote location.

Two Conservative MPs have called on the federal government to stop the flow of people illegally crossing the United States border into Canada.

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Michelle Rempel and Tony Clement tweeted on Sunday that illegal crossings are unsafe and place a burden on local law enforcement.