TORONTO/WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Canadian police said on Wednesday they charged a woman with human smuggling offences in connection with asylum seekers who have been crossing the border from the United States in growing numbers in recent months.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it intercepted a 43-year-old woman driving nine people across the U.S. border into the western province of Saskatchewan on Friday night. All of the asylum seekers are from West Africa but police would not give their nationalities, genders or ages.
The increasing flow of asylum seekers into Canada from the United States has become a contentious issue among Canadians. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released last month found that nearly half of Canadians wanted to deport people illegally crossing into Canada from its southern neighbour.
Illegal migrants interviewed by Reuters in Canada said they had been living legally in the United States and had applied for asylum there. But they fled for fear of being enmeshed in President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown.
The RCMP intercepted 1,860 people walking unlawfully across the border in the first three months of 2017. Among those, Saskatchewan had only seen five.
Michelle Omoruyi, 43, was charged with one count each of human smuggling and conspiracy to commit human smuggling. She is to appear in court in Estevan, Saskatchewan, on May 15.
The nine people were the first intercepted in connection with alleged human smuggling, the RCMP said on Wednesday. They were transferred to the Canada Border Services Agency, processed and released. They have filed refugee claims and are living in Canada while they wait for their claims to be decided, police said.
Refugee advocates have said Canada's policy to turn back people if they make refugee claims at border crossings - a provision of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement - exacerbates human smuggling and unlawful border crossings.
"Unfortunately one of the effects of the Safe Third Country Agreement is to provide business opportunities for smugglers, who often take advantage of the need and desperation of refugees," said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
The Saskatchewan charges are part of an ongoing, four-month investigation by Canadian and U.S. authorities. Canadian police said their American counterparts also arrested people, but would not say whether any charges had been laid.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney