REGINA – A Saskatchewan woman has been charged with human smuggling after RCMP intercepted a vehicle carrying nine refugee claimants who authorities believe crossed the border from the United States.
Mounties say a woman was stopped last Friday on the Canadian side of the border between the North Portal and Northgate crossings, the legal entry points into Saskatchewan from North Dakota.
Police say nine people from West Africa were in the vehicle.
“They were processed by the CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) and they’ve been released into Canada,” RCMP Insp. Donovan Fisher said Wednesday. “They’ve made claims for refugee protection.”
RCMP would not confirm the ages, gender or nationalities of the refugee claimants.
An investigation into organized human smuggling in southeastern Saskatchewan began last December after border officers “referred a returning male Canadian resident for further examination.” The border services agency said there was evidence to suggest smugglers were bringing foreign nationals into Canada from the United States.
Last Friday, American border authorities identified a suspect in the investigation as he entered the U.S. They notified their Canadian counterparts, who in turn alerted the RCMP “that a smuggling attempt may be imminent.”
The vehicle was stopped at 9 p.m. Friday night.
A home in Regina was searched the following day and RCMP said a significant amount of cash was found.
“A fair portion of this currency was foreign currency,” said Fisher.
“At this time we have enlisted the services of our proceeds of crime experts to analyze the money, analyze the situation around which the money was found and any supporting documents that were included with that, including potentially looking at bank records.”
Michelle Omoruyi, 43, is charged with human smuggling and conspiracy to commit human smuggling. She is to appear in court May 15 in Estevan, Sask.
Police also said the United States Border Patrol has arrested other people related to the same investigation, but no details have been released.
“They’re conducting a parallel investigation on the south side of the border. Once that investigation’s complete and they consult with their prosecutors there, they’ll determine what, if any charges, will be appropriate. At this time, we’re doing the same thing,” said Fisher.
He wouldn’t say if anyone else is involved in the alleged smuggling or if the woman charged is a Canadian citizen.
Fisher said it’s the first case in which RCMP have intercepted illegal immigrants coming into Saskatchewan this year.
“So although it’s organized, it’s not necessarily something that’s occurring on a daily or a weekly basis.”
Figures released Wednesday by the federal government show the RCMP intercepted 887 people crossing at official border points in March — up from 658 in February and 315 in January.
Of those stopped in March, 644 were picked up in Quebec, 170 in Manitoba and 71 in B.C.. There were lone crossers in Alberta and New Brunswick.
Some of those coming to Canada in spots such as Emerson, Man., have told authorities they were motivated to leave the U.S. because of the new administration, fearful their asylum claims wouldn’t be treated fairly or that general anti-immigrant sentiment was rising.
Others had Canada in their sights all along as their final destination, obtaining U.S. visas solely for the purpose of coming here.
Critics have blamed the Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the U.S. for rise in border jumping. The agreement states that people can’t make refugee claims at Canada-U.S. land border crossing points because they should have lodged one in the country they first entered.
“The impact of the Safe Third Country agreement has been to give business to people smugglers, to force people who are trying to save their lives as refugees to turn to people who are trying to make money off this situation,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Dench said smugglers take advantage of people not knowing that they don’t need to pay somebody to cross.
“To avoid the Safe Third Country (agreement), you just need to present yourself at some point other than the port of entry,” she said.