Helping freezing refugees 'not at all uncommon' in Manitoba border town

Residents of the border town of Emerson, Man. say they've lost count of how many refugees have crossed into Canada since November.

Emerson Hotel worker says dozens of refugees have crossed border since November

Emerson resident Frank Suderman points to the U.S. border. Many refugees cross into Canada near the Manitoba town. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Residents of the border town of Emerson, Man. say they've lost count of how many refugees have crossed into Canada since Donald Trump's election victory in November. 

Wayne Pfiel, a bartender and maintenance worker at the Emerson Hotel, said he has seen between 30 and 40 refugee claimants arrive in the small town, about 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg and just north of the Canada-U.S. border, in the last few months.

When the claimants arrive their first concern is often to get warm, Pfiel said, so he'll offer them hot cup of coffee inside.

"They're kind of scared, just asking if they're in Canada," he said.

Frank Suderman, a longtime Emerson resident, said he and his neighbours are used to seeing people cross at the border, even in the dead of winter.

"To cross here is not at all uncommon," he said. "I wouldn't want to do it." 

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The border between Canada and the U.S. is a wide expanse of frozen prairie, with the odd tree and outbuilding — hardly a place anyone would want to go for a long walk.

"About a month ago, about four people came in here. There was snow in their boots and they were all around the lobby taking off their boots and socks," Pfiel said.

Groups of refugees will sometimes even spend a night at the Emerson Hotel, he said. Others will arrive in the early morning and huddle up near the front door, waiting for it to open. Typically they are not dressed for frigid conditions, said Pfiel.

He's not surprised by recent stories of refugees with severe frostbite injuries. Bitterly cold winds whip fast around the hotel and many refugees claimants walk for hours until they are sure they are in Canada.

"It's pretty sad," Pfiel said.

After refugees have had a moment to warm up, they usually ask to call the border patrol to report their arrival. An agent from Canada Border Services will then come pick them up and process their claim.

"They're not hiding," he said. "They're like everyone else, human beings. They want to start a new life."

with files from Karen Pauls