Through back roads and in taxis, hundreds of immigrants are making their way across the border between Quebec and the United States illegally, according to Canadian Border Services Agency statistics.

The numbers show an explosion in the amount of asylum claims being made at CBSA land border ports of entry within the province, with 452 claims being made in January. That’s more than three times the amount made during that time period the year before and almost 10 times as many as were made in 2014 or 2015.

Many of those who cross illegally are then arrested by RCMP officers, confirmed a spokesperson.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in illegal crossings,” said Cpl. Camille Habel. “It’s happening across Canada, in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia but the largest increase has been seen in Quebec. We consider it significant.”

Habel said the increase really began in earnest several months ago. Those who are caught are either taken into custody or brought back to the border.

“We make sure they’re not committing other offences, like they’re not carrying drugs or firearms, they’re not linked to organized crime in any way,” said Habel. “If we don’t find anything then they’re taken into custody by CBSA and it becomes an immigration issue.”

Crossing illegally is a strategic move on the part of those seeking asylum in Canada, said Janet Dench, Executive Director for the Canadian Council of Refugees. It’s a way around provisions of a treaty between the Canadian and American governments called the Safe Third Country Agreement.  

Under the terms of the treaty, any refugees seeking asylum in either nation must claim protection in the country in which they first arrived. In essence, asylum seekers who attempt to cross at a border entry point are told by CBSA officers to turn around and ask for refuge in the United States. Those who cross into Canada illegally, however, are detained by the RCMP and then begin the process of filing for refuge in Canada.

“That means Canada is saying to refugees, knock at our door coming from the United States, go back to the U.S. and have your claim heard there,” said Dench. “Many refugees feel the U.S. is not safe and many experts agree that for some refugees the U.S. is not a safe country.”  

Dench attributed some of that fear to the new American administration led by President Donald Trump, who campaign rhetoric on illegal immigrants and refugees was often incendiary.

In January, the new president signed an executive order indefinitely suspending a resettlement program for Syrian refugees and temporarily halted people from seven heavily Muslim countries from travelling to the United States.

That executive order was blocked by a federal judge last week.

A common entry point has been on a road near Hemmingford, where RCMP officers are stationed around the clock, waiting to detain refugees seeking asylum.

Pierre Sigoin has lived close to the U.S. border for nearly 15 years and says he's never seen anything like it. In the past few months he's seen family after family emerging from the woods with their luggage. 

"Some of them would ask us, 'Are we in Canada?' So the answer was 'Yes, you're in Canada'," he said. 

Dench said worries about being sent back to the United States has led many people to cross “irregularly.”

“They’re not trying to avoid the officials, they’re trying to avoid the agreement,” she said. “When they cross over irregularly, not a border point, they’re happy to turn themselves over to the RCMP as soon as they can. They want to do that. They’re just trying to get into Canada to strike a refugee claim and not get sent back to the United States.”