'We're willing to step up,' says Emerson reeve after emergency meeting

The reeve of Emerson, Man. says an emergency meeting Thursday with members of the Canada Border Services Agency and Mounties has relieved concerns he had after a recent surge of refugees into the border town.

RCMP promise to allocate more resources near Manitoba border town after influx of refugees

Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen says there are some worries in the community that among those who are legitimately seeking refugee status, someone, possibly with a criminal background, might be able to sneak in. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

The reeve of Emerson, Man., says an emergency meeting Thursday with members of the Canada Border Services Agency and Mounties has relieved concerns he had after a recent surge of refugees into the border town.

"Now we know the protocol if we get an influx of people," said Greg Janzen. "The governments have been very supportive in this whole issue."

According to the Canada Border Services Agency, 403 people entered Canada near the town in nine months last year, up from 340 in the 2015-16 fiscal year and 68 in 2013-14.

Last weekend, 22 people made the journey — 19 on Saturday and three on Sunday — according to the RCMP.

There was confusion in the community of 671 people about the protocol when a large group of refugees jumps the border, he said. Last weekend Emerson utilized emergency measures and opened its community hall to house the unexpected surge of newcomers.

"We didn't know where we stood as a municipality," said Janzen. "Was there a safety risk for us?"

Emerson member of the legislature Cliff Graydon echoed the concerns and said constituents have also reached out to him with safety worries.

"They're very, very concerned about the refugees coming at this time of year and walking across the field when it's –35 with the wind chill, and are they dressed properly and so on and so forth," he said.

Seidu Mohammed, 24, was left severely frostbitten after a journey across the border to Manitoba from the U.S. on Christmas Eve. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

A pair of Ghanaian refugees who made the journey on foot in December lost most of their fingers to frostbite.

"They don't want to find anybody froze to death out there," Graydon said. "That's the big concern to the local people."

Janzen said his concerns were allayed when RCMP told him they screen refugee claimants.

"We never talked risk factor to our people, but now we understand how the process is being done so that makes it more reassuring," Janzen said. 

If a large group of refugees cross the border again, the CBSA will rent Emerson's community hall to house them, he added.

"If we're needed we're willing [to] step up.… We're not turning them away," said Janzen.

Leaving U.S. not criminal: RCMP

RCMP say they are adding resources along the border near Emerson, but it's not the responsibility of the police to stop border jumpers. 

"People leaving the United States is not a criminal act," said RCMP media relations officer Tara Seel. 
Some refugees walk to this decommissioned border crossing between Manitoba and Noyes, Minn. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

It is, however, the RCMP's responsibility to screen individuals caught after they have crossed the border, she said. 

Police rely on patrols, 911 reports and surveillance technology to catch border jumpers, including asylum seekers, she said. Those who claim refugee status are taken to the Canada Border Services Agency for further processing.

"We have no concerns whatsoever," said Seel. "We are well-prepared to handle any threats at the border."

Not a 'free-for-all'

Rita Chahal, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, also met with Emerson officials along with members of the CBSA and RCMP Thursday. The council runs Welcome Place, a home for refugees in Winnipeg.

She brought the town 10 care packages containing bedding and toiletries for refugees who may enter the town in the future.

Chahal said there are sufficient security checks to ensure safety and that Manitobans are generally willing to open their doors to refugees.

"We have to trust the systems that are in place," she said.

"I think that they need to know that, you know, people who are being processed … are being vetted by Canadian Border Services. People are not being allowed in free-for-all.​"

Read CBC's full coverage of refugees crossing the U.S. border into Manitoba

With files from Bryce Hoye and Laura Glowacki