Manitoba·Exclusive

'I'm freezing to death': 911 call shows compassionate RCMP response to asylum seekers en route to Canada

A 911 call made by a Somali refugee claimant who nearly froze to death in a brutal Manitoba winter provides rare insight into the extraordinary measures asylum seekers take to get into Canada.

Dramatic plea for help from man lost in cold one example of calls RCMP fielded in Manitoba

Early on Feb. 26, 2017, eight migrants from Somalia cross into Canada from the United States by walking down this train track into the town of Emerson, Man. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

You can hear the panic in the Somali man's voice, his breathing getting heavier as he tries to find his way through deep snow somewhere near the Canadian border.

He's with four other people who have just come into Manitoba from the U.S. on foot in the dead of winter.

"We are freezing to death," the man says during a frantic 911 call for help during the wee morning hours of Feb. 11, 2017.

It's dark out and the man is lost. He's been walking for five, maybe six hours.

"I'm trying to figure it out, where we are," he tells the 911 operator. "We are trying to find the road."

Listen to the 911 call here:

A 911 call made by a Somali refugee claimant who nearly froze to death during Manitoba’s brutal winter is giving rare insight into the extraordinary measures asylum seekers will take to get into Canada. 14:48

The 911 call made by a Somali refugee claimant who nearly froze to death in a brutal Manitoba winter provides rare insight into the extraordinary measures asylum seekers take to get into Canada.

It also offers a peek into the world of the 911 operators who try to help with little information to go on.

911 operator calmly delivers aid

In this case, the calm, authoritative voice on the other end of the call is Wendy McMillan, a 911 operator who's worked for the RCMP for more than seven years.

Cellphone service near the border is spotty and the man's phone isn't connected to a provider — it can only be used to make a 911 call — but McMillan finds out a driver dropped the group off near the border town of Pembina, N.D.

The man is on the phone for seven minutes before he tells her why he's out in the cold.

"We are seeking asylum. That's why we tried to come here."

Asylum seekers walked through snowy fields near Emerson, Man., to get into Canada. The dangerous trek has led to many emergency calls. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Things escalate as the man speaks to McMillan. One man can no longer walk.

The caller's breathing gets heavier as he pants in the cold. 

"It's like my hands are falling off," he says. "It's freezing. Snow is too much. We almost freeze to death."

McMillan tells him to take the group to the road, where they should stay put.

"You want the officers to pick you up, right?" she asks.

"Canadian?"

"Yes," she responds.

Officers and ambulance dispatched

The plea for help ends after more than 14 minutes, with 911 operators having determined the group's location and dispatched Mounties and an ambulance.

"Can you tell them to hurry up?" the man asks before hanging up.

"Yeah, we did," McMillan responds.

Wendy McMillan has dealt with many 911 calls from asylum seekers who have crossed into Canada and want Mounties to come and pick them up. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

McMillan recently sat down with CBC News for an interview at the RCMP dispatch centre in Winnipeg to talk about the behind-the-scenes work of 911 operators who dealt with waves of refugee claimants, including children, crossing into Manitoba and other provinces on foot.

McMillan and her colleagues daily fielded calls similar to the one described in this story from refugee claimants phoning from farmers' fields and rural roads around the Emerson, Man., area.

In 2017, the RCMP intercepted 1,018 asylum seekers who made their way into Manitoba somewhere other than at an official border crossing.

The following year, RCMP received at least — but likely more than — 177 calls from refugee claimants who dialed 911 after crossing into Manitoba, they said.

Not like the movies

Listening to the call, which the CBC received more than two years after making an Access to Information request for it, McMillan remembers what she and her colleagues were doing to find the group.

"It was crazy, 'cause you don't know, you don't know who he's with, where he's at. He says Minnesota but that's a pretty big state, so you're not quite sure where he's coming from."

Using maps and yes-no questions about the area around the man, such as whether there was water nearby, McMillan and her co-workers located the group.

Cellphone triangulation isn't always like the movies, she said — sometimes a call can be pinpointed to a 100-metre radius, while other times it may be 10,000 metres.

Asylum seekers cross the border in Hemmingford, Que., on Aug. 4, 2017. The number of refugee claimants crossing into Manitoba has dropped dramatically, but in Quebec, thousands continued to cross in the first four months of 2019. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press )

Often RCMP officers drive around in the dark with their lights and sirens on to try to find someone. A 911 operator on the phone with a lost refugee claimant asks whether they can see or hear the Mounties' cruiser.

McMillan smiled as she listened to the man asking if she was sending Canadian officers to his rescue.

"It's very common. They want to make sure that they've actually crossed the border and obviously, they don't want to go back home, so they want help."

Many of the refugee claimants who have walked into Manitoba from the U.S. since Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in fall 2016 have needed that help.

Seidu Mohammed had all his fingers amputated after getting frostbite while walking into Canada on Christmas Eve in 2016. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

A pair of Ghanaian men made international headlines when they lost all their fingers to frostbite on Christmas Eve in 2016 after wandering lost through farmers' fields.

Razak Iyal and Seidu Mohammed spent time in U.S. detention centres and were afraid they'd be deported home, where they say they would face violence. Both were later granted refugee protection by Canada.

Changes coming to Safe Third Country Agreement

In 2017, a Ghanaian woman was found dead near the Canada-U.S. border, and in January 2018, another refugee claimant got frostbite so badly he had to have the tops of three fingers amputated.

Refugee claimants currently can make an asylum claim if they cross into Canada somewhere other than at an official port of entry.

A civilian supervisor works inside the Manitoba RCMP 911 operations centre, where calls still occasionally come in from asylum seekers who have crossed into the province. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement forces asylum seekers to make a claim for refugee status in the first safe country they arrive in, meaning migrants who've arrived in the U.S. from another country aren't eligible to apply for refugee status in Canada, with a few exceptions.

One exception allows someone to make an asylum claim after crossing into Canada somewhere other than at an official border entry point.

The federal Liberals are now trying to slow that with a provision in an omnibus budget bill tabled in April, which would prohibit someone who started a refugee claim in another country from starting a new one here.

Refugee claimants continue to cross into Canada. From January to April this year, 3,844 border crossers were intercepted by the RCMP in Quebec alone.

Slowdown in stream of asylum seekers

In Manitoba, things have slowed down, with only 30 people being caught by the Mounties during the same period.

But 911 operators in Winnipeg still get desperate calls from time to time.

In March, a pregnant woman had to be rescued after she walked into Manitoba and got stuck in the snow.

McMillan doesn't see a difference between the calls from refugee claimants or anyone else who phones for help. 

Helping people in need is why she does her job, she said.

"Just knowing that you can even help just one person, could be a family, whatever the case may be, but just knowing that you're there for somebody."

A 911 call made by a Somali refugee claimant who nearly froze to death in a brutal Manitoba winter provides rare insight into the extraordinary measures asylum seekers take to get into Canada. 3:38

About the Author

​Austin Grabish started reporting when he was young, landing his first byline when he was just 18. He joined CBC in 2016 after freelancing for several outlets. ​​In 2018, he was part of a team of CBC journalists who won the Ron Laidlaw Award for the corporation's extensive digital coverage on asylum seekers crossing into Canada. Email: austin.grabish@cbc.ca