February 23, 2017 / 7:24 PM / 6 months ago

Canada's Trudeau pressured to tackle problem of asylum-seekers

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, February 13, 2017.Kevin Lamarque

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under increasing pressure on Thursday to deal with asylum seekers illegally crossing into Canada from the United States to avoid a crackdown by the administration of President Donald Trump.

Trudeau, who stresses that Canada welcomes refugees, has so far avoided political fallout with Trump. The two talked on the phone about the border and other issues on Thursday but neither government gave many details of the conversation.

Allies and opponents alike say they want a strategy to cope with the dozens of people - mainly from Burundi, Eritrea, Syria, Ghana and Sudan - walking across the border every day.

The number of asylum seekers crossing into Canada at isolated and unguarded border crossings has increased in recent weeks amid fears that Trump will start expelling illegal immigrants, and photos of smiling Canadian police greeting the migrants have gone viral.

The premier of the western province of Manitoba, where many of the refugees end up, on Thursday asked Ottawa for more resources to deal with the new arrivals, some of whom have lost fingers to frostbite in the dangerous crossing.

While Brian Pallister said his province will welcome those in need with "open arms and open hearts," his call for a national strategy to deal with the arrivals adds to opposition criticism that Trudeau has put national security at risk by embracing asylum seekers.

As of Feb. 13, some 3,800 people had made an asylum claim in 2017, up from the same period last year and on track to approach the 2008 peak of 36,867, said Scott Bardsley, spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

Bardsley said comparable data for the Jan. 1 to Feb. 13 period in 2016 was not available.

The asylum seekers are breaking the law because Canada's policy under a Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement is to turn back refugees if they make claims at border crossings.

Trudeau and Trump discussed border cooperation in their phone call on Thursday.

The White House said Trump emphasized the importance of working closely with Canada on cross-border issues, "including implementation of his administration's actions to protect America from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals and others."

Officials say Trump will soon issue a new executive order to replace the administration's directive suspending travel to the United States by citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries.

Warmer weather could spur more arrivals of asylum-seekers in Canada.

"They know they are in a pickle. If people are coming over in February, what's it going to be like in June and July?" said University of Toronto political science professor Nelson Wiseman.

Polls show Canadians are split over whether Canada should be accepting more or fewer refugees.

But even Liberal legislators are starting to hear from constituents concerned about the arrivals.

"One or two people have raised the issue with me ... and I expect I'll have a few more" conversations with constituents about the arrivals, said Kevin Lamoureux, member of parliament for Winnipeg North, where many asylum seekers settle awaiting their refugee hearing.

Reporting by Andrea Hopkins and David Ljunggren; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Adler

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