'We saw what happened in the airports': Asylum seekers from U.S. surge into Manitoba
10 refugee claims on Monday alone
The temperature dipped as low as –12 C on Friday as a group of three refugees crossed from Minnesota into Manitoba, the end point of a long journey from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
"It was dangerous. We were afraid that maybe, we didn't know what would happen. The wildlife and the city, something can happen," said one of the refugees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"But we were telling each other to keep up."
The number of refugee claimants scrambling across the Canada-U.S. border, cutting through snowy fields to seek asylum in Manitoba, has soared since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council staff say.
The recent refugee and his wife flew into Minneapolis 26 days before for a new life and freedom. But when Trump signed an executive order on Friday, putting a four-month hold on allowing refugees into the States and some other Muslim-majority countries, the refugee said he lost hope their applications would ever be accepted.
"We saw what happened in the airports and that's why we … tried to cross the border," he said.
In the past three months, Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council staff said they have met with more than 80 applicants looking to open refugee files. The normal number for an entire year is 50 to 60.
The council opened 10 new files on Monday alone, executive director Rita Chahal said, noting that most claimants came from Djibouti, while a few are from Somalia and one is from Eritrea.
Eight walked over the border, while two others entered the country at the Niagara border crossing in Ontario and were transferred to Winnipeg because they have family there, said Ghezae Hagos, a paralegal with the council.
"They're arriving in a variety of ways. Many of them are walking through fields and finding other ways to get in; not stopping at the border, but coming straight to Winnipeg," Chahal said.
"Others are making a claim at the Emerson border and then either find a ride to Winnipeg, or in some cases, we have gone down to the border and picked up clients and brought them here. But a lot of them are walking, yes."
The Emerson border crossing is about 100 kilometres south of Winnipeg.
Chahal can't speak about specific cases for privacy reasons, but said the majority of refugee claimants are concerned about their safety in the U.S., and specifically afraid of deportations.
"The act of closing a border might be illegal but what they are doing is not illegal," Hagos said. "They are asking for a refugee claim and the chance to be heard and treated fairly.
"To be free from persecution is a right we need to guard."
'Really scared of what is going on'
Prior to Trump's election, many of the people who sought asylum in Canada came here after having their refugee claim or asylum case rejected by the U.S. Now, many haven't even bothered to make a claim there, said Hagos.
"They are really scared of what is going on in the U.S. and that the U.S. is not welcoming refugees and asylum-seekers anymore. So they just use it as transit [to get to Canada]," he said.
"I'm talking about people who are educated, people who have a very, very strong case [for refugee status in the U.S.]. They said that they cannot take the chance of [making a] refugee claim in the U.S. because they might get rejected, they might not get fair treatment."
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Chahal said the surge into Manitoba has created a burden on the Interfaith Immigration Council, which works to get people's applications in order and to find them safe places to live.
"It's always a concern when people are risking their lives in any way, so we want to assure that when people reach our doors, the first thing we want to do is get them safety, make sure they have a place to stay and some basic necessities are met."
On Christmas Eve, two refugees from Ghana were hospitalized in Winnipeg after they got frostbite after getting lost on Highway 75, near the Canada-U.S. border at Emerson.
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Safe Third Country Agreement
People wouldn't need to dangerously walk through cold Canadian fields to get into the country if the Safe Third Country Agreement was suspended, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
The agreement between Canada and the U.S. was signed in 2002 and came into effect in 2004. It effectively prevents refugees arriving from the States from requesting asylum in Canada, although there are a few exceptions, because it stipulates that anyone seeking refugee status must do so in the first country they enter.
Dench said that there is some hope that the States might withdraw from the agreement given Trump's policies and messaging.
"It would mean that [asylum seekers] would be able to make a refugee claim at the land border in an orderly and safe way so we could put an end to people crossing the border irregularly and putting their life and limbs at risk in frigid temperatures," she said.
"This is an agreement that does not favour the U.S. and we know the new president has expressed disapproval of agreements, international agreements that are not in the U.S. interest," she said.