Manitoba

Record number of refugees checking in at Welcome Place

Welcome Place is seeing a record number of refugees registering after walking across the U.S.-Canada border.

Executive director says 38 asylum claims filed in January

Rita Chahal from Manitoba's largest refugee resettlement agency on the influx of people crossing the border in aftermath of Trump election win. 5:14

Welcome Place is seeing a record number of refugees registering after walking across the U.S.-Canada border. 

"January has been an extremely busy month," Rita Chahal, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, told CBC Thursday. "In January we opened 38 files, which is a record number for us — especially in such cold weather." 

The number of people seeking out Welcome Place's services has been slowly but steadily increasing, she said. Since October, 118 people have come. Since the beginning of April, they've opened 270 refugee claim files. 

Last month, the Canadian Border Services Agency said that 410 asylum-seekers crossed the border from April-December 2016, up from 340 the year before and 136 the year before that. 

"A lot of people are making the trek, not stopping in Emerson, not making the claim there, coming all the way to Winnipeg. That's what's concerning to us most, the fact that people are really risking their lives, crossing fields, not knowing where they might end up, just looking for safety," she said.

Chahal notes those numbers only reflect refugees who have come to Welcome Place, but she believes that's the majority, as the centre helps people file asylum claims, find lawyers, search for housing and get jobs in 40 languages. 

However, it's possible some have carried on to other provinces.

Lately, Chahal says, people are mainly coming from Somalia, Ghana, Djibouti and Nigeria.

She said it's too early to tell whether new border rules in the U.S. are related to the increase. 

"I don't think we've had sufficient time to analyze that," Chahal said. "But a number of them do tell us that they're afraid of what's happening in the U.S." 

Welcome Place has had to pull staff members from other departments to process the increase in files and is struggling with its donations-only budget, but Chahal says the work is too important to stop. 

"It is their right to make a claim," she said. "Canada is a signatory to the refugee convention of 1951. In fact it's not really illegal for them to cross and make a claim, because they have a right to do so under the convention." 

"They're, at the end of the day, really happy — despite all the risks that they've taken and the hardship that they've done — they are feeling that they are safe, and they have a chance to apply for freedom."