Spring flooding in Manitoba changing route of asylum seekers

The U.S. border patrol says flooding near Emerson, Man., means some asylum seekers are looking further east for places to cross into Canada on foot. Some are entering at Tolstoi and Piney, Man., in areas historically known as bootlegging routes. People living in the area are not impressed.

Some say illegal border crossers won't find the terrain or the people as welcoming

Eric Kuhn, U.S. Border Patrol agent, says spring flooding of the Red River and its tributaries is pushing some asylum seekers further East as they look for places to cross the border on foot. (Karen Pauls, CBC News)

Spring flooding is complicating the crossing for some asylum seekers walking over the international border into Manitoba and forcing some to sneak over by a different route.

All winter, would-be refugee claimants have been walking across snowy, wind-swept farmer's fields, but in the last week, warm weather has brought spring flooding to the nearby Red River and its tributaries.

"The ditches are pretty deep on either side of the road. We'd be over our heads, I don't think we'd stand a very good chance. There's not  much worse than cold water to do you in pretty quick," said Eric Kuhn, agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol at Pembina, N.D.

We're not going to let anybody drown in a ditch for bureaucratic wrangling- Eric Kuhn, U.S. Border Patrol

Municipal officials in both countries are ready in case they need to do a water rescue, although they say things can get complicated if they are on one side of the border and the victim is on the other.

It's technically illegal for them to cross the border, even in an emergency. However, Kuhn said there are mutual aid agreements if someone is in mortal danger.

"Life takes precedence. If there's an issue like that, contact us, get us in the loop and we'll work together on getting it done," he said.

"We're not going to let anybody drown in a ditch for bureaucratic wrangling. We're not going to let anybody die out here."

Refugee claimants from U.S.

Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, Canada generally does not accept refugee claimants coming from the U.S., but there are exceptions.

Canada is also a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, so those who sneak through the border at an unofficial point of entry can legally make a claim here.

Since January, resettlement workers say they've helped 360 people who have crossed at Emerson, but the flood conditions mean some asylum seekers are now finding other places to cross further east.

Spring flooding in Manitoba changing route of asylum seekers

7 years ago
Duration 2:23
Featured VideoThe U.S. border patrol says flooding near Emerson, Man., means some asylum seekers are looking further east for places to cross into Canada on foot. S

Trying another route

People living between Tolstoi, about 50 kilometres east of Emerson, and Piney, about 110 kilometres east, tell CBC News they have already spotted asylum seekers.

Kuhn has been told of at least one group that crossed recently at the Tolstoi, Man., port-of-entry, which closes between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

Shelley Ellis and her son Chase haven't seen any asylum seekers in their area yet but worry about the potential for people crossing the border on foot. She says it's an issue of safety and security for those living along the border. (CBC News )

While Emerson has been dealing with the crisis for months and has appealed to Ottawa and the province for help with refugees arriving, these communities are even smaller and have no means of dealing with them.

Shelley Ellis, who lives about three kilometres from the Tolstoi border crossing, is concerned about who might be coming in.

"We're paying taxes and we're living our life and people are just walking across that aren't supposed to be here. I think the government should take care of the people that are here first, the people that need help, the low-income families, the veterans, before welcoming everybody," she said.

"It's the ones that aren't up to any good that are hiding. That's always a worry."

Just up the highway, gas station owner Rick McIntyre believes it's just a matter of time before someone gets hurt.

Strangers banging at the door

"We read in papers and heard from over there [at Emerson]. They're banging on doors, trying to open doors, you might do it at the wrong place. If it happens here, there's four big dogs that come out," he said.

"There's a lot of people have a lot of guns out here."

Near Vita, Man., local residents know there are many places to walk across the border undetected. This region is historically known as a bootlegging route.

Rob Jirasek says Canada should do more to protect its border, which he says is too easy to cross illegally. The more than 6,400-kilometre border is open and undefended in many areas. (Karen Pauls, CBC News)

A well-maintained road, site of a long-decommissioned border crossing, is guarded only by a trail camera hidden high up in a tree.

"The border is not secure. It's Swiss cheese," Rob Jirasek said, as he gestured to a row of concrete barricades and bushes marking the international line between Minnesota and Manitoba near Vita. "This is it, it's just as easy as crossing over your neighbor's yard in the city. You can walk right on through."

Jirasek is not impressed with the numbers of people coming to Canada to claim refugee status, especially those who have already had asylum claims rejected in the U.S. and are awaiting deportation orders.

Holds Trudeau responsible

He said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to blame after he tweeted in January: "To those fleeing persecution, terror and war ... Canadians will welcome you."

"You can't just open your arms and say 'Yes, come on in. We're going to take care of you.' We can't even take care of our own," he said.

"People need to know that you can't just jump the border and walk across and claim asylum. ... There's not a civil war in the U.S., there's zero for them to be scared of except being deported back to their own country."

"I can't answer for other people but I know I won't be serving them coffee and donuts," Jirasek said.


Karen Pauls

National reporter

Karen Pauls covers Manitoba stories for CBC national news. She has worked across Canada, U.S. and Europe, and in CBC bureaus in Washington, London and Berlin. Some of her awards include the New York Festivals for coverage of the Greyhound bus beheading and a Quirks & Quarks question show, and from the Radio Television Digital News Association for stories about asylum seekers, the Michif language, the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy, live elections and royal wedding shows. In 2007, Karen received the Canadian Association of Journalist’s Dateline Hong Kong Fellowship and did a radio documentary on the 10th anniversary of the deadly avian flu outbreak. Story tips at