From Somalia to Manitoba: A look at the long journey of asylum seekers

There are many reasons asylum seekers arriving in Manitoba flee Somalia — devastating famine, a staggering unemployment rate and the threats of al-Shabaab. But not all planned to end up in the Prairie province.

Many asylum seekers are from Somalia, a country plagued by violence, drought and unemployment

Asylum seekers move carefully along a railway overpass in Emerson, Man. Many of the people coming into Manitoba are originally from Somalia. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

The snow-covered fields around the Emerson, Man., border have become a pathway for many asylum seekers hoping to make a refugee claim in Canada — a colder trek than most have experienced on their long journeys from around the world.

Many of the people coming into Manitoba are originally from Somalia, a country located in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya.

There are many reasons people flee Somalia — devastating famine, a staggering unemployment rate, the threats of al-Shabaab and a civil war that has been ongoing for more than 25 years — but not all planned to end up in the Canadian Prairie province.

As Manitoba deals with an influx of refugee claimants, it is addressing the fallout of a war and famine thousands of kilometres away.

Why are people fleeing Somalia?

Somalia is experiencing a devastating drought that has led to famine which could affect 6.2 million people, the United Nations estimates.

Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made an emergency visit to the country and called on the world to act immediately to prevent more deaths from the famine.

It is the third famine in the country in 25 years; a 2011 famine killed nearly 260,000 people.

On Friday, Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced $21 million would go to Somalia to help address extreme food insecurity.

At the same time, opportunities to find work and support families in Somalia are increasingly rare.

A 2016 report from a global security expert said the world's two most fragile cities — defined as those where institutions are fundamentally unable to provide "law and order, basic services [and] resilience to sudden onset or long-term climate change" — are Mogadishu and Kismaayo, both in Somalia.

Those cities had unemployment rates of 66 per cent. The report said all of Somalia's cities are "exceedingly fragile."

A 2012 report from the United Nations Development Program said the unemployment rate for 14- to 29-year-olds is 67 per cent — one of the highest rates in the world. For women, it's 74 per cent.

How dangerous is it in Somalia?

People in Somalia also face violence from the militant group al-Shabaab, which rose out of Somalia's civil war — a conflict that began in 1991 and is still considered ongoing.

Until 2011, al-Shabaab, an Islamic extremist group, controlled Mogadishu and much of Somalia and imposed a strict version of shariah law.

Although the group's hold on the country has weakened, it still carries out deadly attacks, including one in Mogadishu in January which killed 28 people.

Abdikadir Ahmed Omar, 30, who spoke to CBC in Mexico on his way to Canada in February, said he fled his homeland because he feared for his life.

His role as a human rights activist — and occasionally as a translator for media outlets, including once for the CBC — had put him on the radar of al-Shabaab.

"But if Shabaab wants to kill you, they will," says Ahmed Omar. "The only option was for me to leave."

How do they get to Canada?

The journey from Somalia to Manitoba can vary, but many of the asylum seekers have told CBC News about harrowing journeys from Somalia to countries in Central and South America, including Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Mexico, before arriving in the United States.

Many people travel by foot, bus, boat and train through South America and Central America before finally arriving in North America — a journey which takes three to five months and costs upwards of $20,000 US per person.

While the journey seems long and expensive, many of the asylum seekers arriving here say a Mediterranean Sea route to Europe wasn't an option, with borders so tight. 

The U.S. used to be the end goal for many people, but those plans are changing since the election of President Donald Trump.

Why are they coming to Manitoba?

The more than 6,400-kilometre-long southern Canada-U.S. border is wide open and undefended, but it is our agreement with the U.S. over refugee claimants that is pushing many north.

Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, Canada generally does not accept refugee claimants coming in from the U.S., but there are exceptions. Canada is also a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, so those who irregularly cross into the country — meaning they enter somewhere other than a border crossing — can be given permission to make a claim here.

Six provinces — British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador — offer immigration and refugee legal aid. Saskatchewan is not experiencing a surge in asylum seekers like Manitoba's, which could be because it does not offer legal aid to refugee claimants.

There is also a large Somali community in Minnesota, just across the border from Manitoba. Minneapolis is home to one of the largest Somali communities in the United States — with a clear road right to the Canada-U.S. border.

Why are they leaving the U.S.?

Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Communities in Minnesota, told CBC News in February that Somalis have the highest rate of asylum claim rejections and deportation orders in the U.S.

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)

While some asylum seekers always planned to make their way to Canada, many have had their U.S. asylum claims rejected.

Since Trump's election and the administration's attempts to impose a travel ban — which includes Somalia — many people from the country don't think they have a chance for appeal or judicial review of their asylum claims. Many would rather try their luck in Canada with the help of legal aid, which usually isn't provided in the U.S.

"I am black. I am Somali. I am a Muslim — the three things the president doesn't like," said Naimo Ahmed, 23, who crossed in Febuary.

"To him, I am a terrorist. But I am not. I don't want to harm anyone; that's the last thing I want to do. All I am looking for is protection."

​Is it true Canada doesn't deport people to Somalia?

An increase in immigration raids in the United States also has many people worried they will be sent back to Somalia, something that may not happen even if an asylum claim is rejected in Canada.

If an asylum claim is rejected in Canada, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada or the Canada Border Services Agency will normally issue a removal order for the claimant.

There are three countries currently on Canada's temporary suspension of removals list. Claimants can't be deported to those countries because of things like armed conflict or environmental disasters. Afghanistan, Congo and Iraq are on the list, but Somalia is not.

Parts of Somalia are sometimes included in an administrative deferral of removals list, which stops deportations for a short period of time during a humanitarian crisis.

Once the situation in the country stabilizes, the person will be deported. An ADR is currently in place for certain regions of Somalia, including Mogadishu.