Conservative leadership candidate Maxime Bernier said Canada should close the loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement and send those who cross illegally back to the United States.
The loophole currently prevents refugees who cross the Canada-U.S. border illegally to be turned away – instead, they are arrested and able to start a claims process to stay in Canada.
The number of asylum seekers crossing the unguarded portions of the border has soared in recent months, a trend Bernier said allows some to get ahead of “real refugees.”
The 2004 Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada requires people apply for asylum in the first country where they arrive, unless an immediate family member lives in another country. The agreement applies only to refugee claimants trying to get into Canada from the U.S. at land border crossings, by train and at airports.
There are few exceptions to the agreement; however, some argue the agreement inadvertently encourages people to dangerously sneak into Canada and make a claim rather than be rejected at the border.
Those arrested at the border undergo a criminal record check. If they have a clean record, which means they have not been convicted of a serious offence or had previous claims denied in Canada, they are able to meet with a border officer and file a claim.
Throughout the process, refugee applicants are entitled to health care, are able to apply for a special work permit and legal aid, and minors are automatically eligible to attend school.
WATCH: NDP calling for immediate suspension of ‘safe third party agreement’ following travel ban
The Canadian government has faced pressure to repeal the agreement since U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, but the government has so far refused.
Now, advocacy organizations are bracing for a greater influx of asylum-seekers thanks to the Liberal government’s acceptance of Syrian refugees in Canada, Trump‘s anti-foreigner rhetoric and warmer temperatures, which will make the walk across the U.S. border less treacherous.
More than 7,000 refugee applicants entered Canada in 2016 through land ports of entry from the United States, up 63 percent from the previous year, according to Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). Another 2,000 entered by crossing the border without official authorization through unguarded sections of the border.
Manitoba and Quebec have experienced the highest volume of illegal crossings in recent months.
WATCH: Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale tells Vassy Kapelos his government is studying where the recent illegal immigrants crossing Canadian borders are coming from and that most of those people were using the U.S. as a transit point with no plans to stay there.
In Manitoba, 430 asylum seekers crossed over between April 2016 to January 2017, up from the 340 who crossed over throughout the entire 2015-16 year.
But Bernier isn’t the first to call for changes to the agreement. Amnesty International, the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have all recently called on the Liberal government to scrap the Safe Third Country Agreement altogether.
– With files from The Associated Press, Reuters and Global News reporter Amy Minsky