Pregnant woman, toddler among 19 asylum seekers rescued after crossing border in storm

Nineteen asylum seekers — two Tuesday night and 17 on Wednesday morning — were rescued while trying to cross the Canada-U.S. border during a winter storm near Emerson, Man., the town's reeve says.

Group of 17 found huddled together in shack outside of town, say Emerson officials

Emerson volunteer fire crews rescued 17 asylum seekers from this shack early Wednesday morning. Two others had been rescued by crews Tuesday evening in another location near the border. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Nineteen asylum seekers — two Tuesday night and 17 on Wednesday morning — were rescued while trying to cross the Canada-U.S. border during a winter storm near Emerson, Man., the town's reeve says.

Greg Janzen said one person suffered a broken arm while making the trek through bitterly cold weather that brought snow and high winds to Manitoba. 

The group of 17 were found in a shed just after 7 a.m. Wednesday, huddled together trying to stay warm.

The asylum seekers included men and women, one pregnant, as well as a toddler.

Earlier in the day, the reeve told CBC there were children involved in the crossing, but Emerson fire chief Jeff French confirmed later only one child made the journey, a one-year-old.

Nineteen asylum seekers — two Tuesday night and 17 on Wednesday morning — were rescued while trying to cross the Canada-U.S. border during a winter storm near Emerson, Man., the town's reeve says. 2:00

"This is really getting dangerous for these people," Janzen said.

Early Wednesday, he said there were concerns about a missing person, but all have been accounted for since then.

The fire chief said Wednesday's group was dropped off fairly close to the Canadian border and walked about an hour outside before calling Canadian authorities.

An open field near the shack where asylum seekers were rescued outside of Emerson, Man. Winds overnight Tuesday reached 83 km/h in the area and temperatures felt like -26 C with windchill. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

"Our major concern was the weather. Even an hour walking in this kind of wind, that's a long time to be outside," said French. "It's pretty cold to be walking in these kind of conditions,"

'The risks are too high,' says RCMP

RCMP Sgt. Cory Meyers, head of border enforcement for Manitoba, reiterated concerns for the safety of asylum seekers walking for long stretches in snowy, open fields. 

"The RCMP strongly discourages those attempting to cross the border from making the trek. The risks are too high in this harsh weather," Meyers said in a written statement.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale plans to raise the issue of asylum seekers crossing the border on foot when he meets with his U.S. counterpart on Friday. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Visibility was poor Tuesday and into Wednesday morning in the Emerson area, with blustery winds of up to 83 km/h and blowing snow. Wind chill made it feel like –26 C, according to Environment Canada.

Weather conditions had forced the province to close Highway 75 Tuesday and into Wednesday morning, leaving people stranded in the small border town, unable to drive north to Winnipeg.

The highway has since reopened and a blowing snow advisory lifted.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says he intends to raise what happened at the Canada-U.S. border over the past two nights on Friday when U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly visits Ottawa.

"The concern, I think, relates to why people are putting themselves into potentially very risky situations," Goodale told reporters on his way into question period on Parliament Hill Wednesday.

"One question I would have is, who organized this movement and did they actually contemplate letting people off on a roadside in the middle of a Prairie blizzard? That's risky and we'll want to explore the factor that lead to that kind of risky behaviour."

Somali community organizer issues warning 

More than 200 people have walked across open fields and through ditches near Emerson since Jan. 1 — part of a growing number that have also crossed the border near Hemmingford. Que., and other communities.

Many of those making the journey are originally from African nations such as Somalia and Ghana and fear deportation from the United States under toughened immigration laws.

They illegally cross through fields and ditches instead of via official ports of entry because of the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires people to make asylum claims in the country they arrive in.  

Police arrest the border crossers and screen them. Once cleared, the individuals are released to CBSA and they begin filing their refugee claim paperwork. A United Nations convention signed by Canada prevents refugee claimants from being penalized for illegally entering the country. 

Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, says the latest cold weather shows how risky it can be to walk into Canada on foot from the U.S. (The Associated Press)

Many of the border-crossers at Emerson have passed through Minneapolis, home of a large Somali community.

Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, has been warning people against trekking into Canada on foot. The latest bout of bad weather reinforces that message, he said.

Some people are thinking twice about making the journey, he added.

"But others, because they don't have enough resources and they believe that's the only chance that they have, they'll take whatever risk that they can encounter. And that's something which is dangerous."

Noor said he is not expecting numbers to swell in the spring when the weather warms up. He suggested anyone who has considered trekking to Canada is likely to have already taken the opportunity to do so.

with files from Chris Hall, Karen Pauls, Angela Johnston, Meaghan Ketcheson and The Canadian Press