Manitoba

Asylum seeker walked into Canada across farmer's field after entry denied at official crossing

On May 8, Watta Cephus came to Canada to claim asylum by walking through the field — something she says she was too afraid to do in March, after she first tried to enter Canada at an official crossing.

Watta Cephus has an aunt living in Winnipeg, but was turned back at crossing because of lack of documents

Watta Cephus walked across the Canadian border on May 8, 12 days before her visa was set to expire in the U.S. (Lyza Sale/ CBC)

A Liberian woman who walked into Canada through a farmer's field says she only took that route after being denied entry at a border crossing.

On May 8, Watta Cephus came to Canada to claim asylum by walking through the field — something she says she was too afraid to do in March, after she first tried to enter Canada at an official crossing.

"It's really scary. It could cost your life," said the 39-year-old. "I've seen stories of people who have lost their body parts — recently, the lady who died."

In May, the body of Mavis Otuteye was found just south of the Manitoba border town of Emerson. She was attempting to walk into Canada.

In March, Cephus walked up to the Emerson port of entry requesting asylum. She had been living in the U.S. for three years and her visa was set to expire, with no chance of renewal.

In the past year, hundreds of asylum seekers have avoided crossing at an official port of entry. Many fear being denied entry because of the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States.

Under that agreement, asylum seekers must make refugee claims in the first country they reach. That means those coming into Canada from the U.S. would be turned back at the border.

However, Cephus fell under the family exception to the agreement because her aunt, Martha Cummings-Newray, lives in Winnipeg. Cummings-Newray has been a Canadian citizen since 2011.

Martha Cummings-Newray says she can finally sleep through the night now that she knows her niece, Watta Cephus, is safe in Canada. (Lyza Sale/ CBC)

"Unfortunately, I didn't have my birth certificates and things with me to establish it the first time," said Cephus. 

She said the border agent didn't allow her to call her aunt to establish their family relation and she was sent back to the U.S.

Cephus said she went back to Minnesota, where she was staying with friends, and had her aunt send her copies of documents to prove their relationship.

With her visa set to expire on May 20, Cephus said she couldn't decide if she should try the official border crossing again, or cross through a field.

"Given the first situation, I was just kind paranoid about going back," she said. "That's not really something I would do under a normal circumstance … but I didn't really have a choice."

"I am so happy because I've got her and she's safe," said Cummings-Newray. "I can sleep now without worrying that she is in those bushes, trying to come and [getting] stuck in some kind of mud or snow or something."

The women hadn't seen each in years. Cummings-Newray and her family fled during the Liberian civil war in the 1990s, while Cephus and her family stayed.

A Liberian woman who walked into Canada through a farmer's field says she only took that route after being denied entry at a border crossing. 2:16

Cummings-Newray said she is happy her niece is with her in Canada because things are still bad in their home country.

"What my sister explained she is going through is so terrible. They torment, and she has been moving around for her own safety," she said.

Cephus passed her criminal record check and is now in the process of filling out paperwork to get a hearing with the refugee board.

About the Author

Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor