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Airports see surge in asylum claims after border, visa requirement changes

Canada is experiencing a surge of asylum claims at domestic airports after Ottawa closed an unofficial land crossing and eased certain requirements for visitor visa applicants.

Meanwhile, the number of claims made at land crossings has dropped significantly compared to last year.

From January through September 2023, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) processed 26,585 asylum claims at airports, representing a 54 per cent increase from 2022's total of 17,165.

Most of this year's claims, 17,080 in total, were made at airports in Quebec. Another 8,735 were made in Ontario, 430 in British Columbia, 320 in Alberta and 15 in Nova Scotia.

In contrast with this trend, CBSA agents as of the end of September had processed just over half the number of applications, 24,570, at land ports compared to 2022's total of 46,065. The number of asylum seekers intercepted by the RCMP between ports of entry has dropped in 2023 as well, totalling 14,140 as of September compared to 39,540 as of the end of December 2022.

A report published by the Canadian Citizenship & Immigration Resource Centre (CCIRC), a Quebec-based immigration law firm, attributes some of these changes to the closure this year of the unofficial border crossing at Roxham Road.

The rural southern Quebec road was previously used as an unofficial crossing by migrants entering Canada from New York to apply for asylum.

Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, first signed between the U.S. and Canada in 2004, asylum seekers must make their claim at an official border crossing in whichever country they arrive first.

But a loophole in the agreement meant that for years, migrants who first arrived in the United States but aimed to stay in Canada were able to enter Canada via unofficial locations like Roxham Road and remain in this country while they waited for their case to be decided.

The crossing was closed in late March after the U.S. and Canada closed the loophole, which means anyone intercepted trying to cross there will now be returned to the U.S., rather than being allowed to stay in Canada.

"Would-be claimants have thus started relying on finding new entry points into Canada," the CCIRC report reads. The numbers appear to bear this out, with the biggest decreases this year in border interceptions and land port asylum claims having been recorded in Quebec.

The report also theorizes some of the increase in the number of applications made at airports could be linked to Canada’s waiving of certain eligibility requirements for visitor visa applicants.

In an effort to clear a backlog of immigration applications, Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) in February waived the requirements that visitor visa applicants show the availability of sufficient funds and demonstrate that they will leave the country when their visas expire.

"The accumulated visitor visa inventory is limiting Canada’s attractiveness for tourists and business persons, in addition to keeping families separated," reads the IRCC web page outlining the policy change.

"Facilitating the processing of applications currently in the inventory by streamlining eligibility requirements will position Canada for a clean start and a return to pre-pandemic processing times."

The policy is set to expire at the end of 2023.

With files from The Canadian Press