'He was running away to save his life,' refugee says of men's frigid journey across Canadian border

It's a life-or-death decision to try to cross the U.S.-Canada border illegally, and one former refugee — now living in Winnipeg — says people only attempt the dangerous journey because they have no other choice.

Yahya Samatar, who swam into Canada in 2015, is reaching out to asylum-seeker recovering from frostbite

Yahya Samatar swam across the Red River from North Dakota into Manitoba in 2015. (CBC)

Yahya Samatar knows the feeling of desperation that drove a pair of men from Ghana to walk through freezing cold to cross into Canada near the Emerson border Christmas Eve.

It's the feeling of having no choice but to risk your life. 

"It is very hard to express in words the situation. The reason that he was running away was to save his life," he said Friday. 

Samatar made a similar journey in August 2015 when he swam across the Red River from North Dakota into Manitoba. 

"As long as there is still that situation back in their countries, they have to run. They don't have any other options. I know the situation I have been through, I was saving my life."

He's already reached out to one of the men, a 24-year-old who is recovering from frostbite in a Winnipeg hospital.

"I just want to say [to] him, 'Welcome to Winnipeg,' as I was welcomed when I was coming to Winnipeg, just to tell him, 'Don't be scared, you are safe right now,'" Samatar said.

"As long as he cross the border and as long as he's in Winnipeg, I feel him safe. I feel him in the right place and the right position. And [I want] just to share my stories and how I survived."

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said 410 refugee claimants have been intercepted near the Emerson port of entry while crossing into Canada between April 1, 2016 and Dec. 8, 2016.

Inland claimants on the rise

According to the Canadian Council for Refugees, the percentage of Canadian refugee claimants who make their claims once already in the country is on the rise.

"What we've seen over the last 20 years, there's a huge shift increasingly towards a higher and higher percentage of the claims being made inland," said Janet Dench, executive director of the national non-profit.
Janet Dench is the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. She says Canada may need to reconsider its Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. (CBC)

"People find some way to get in, either they come in as a visitor or they cross the border regularly or they overstay a visa, et cetera. Those people then make a claim inland."

Dench says refugee claimants are increasingly choosing inland claims because of the difficulties making a claim at the border.

She argued Canadian refugee claims are processed in a way that provides disincentives for people making claims at borders or airports and said the Safe Third Country Agreement, which Canada and the U.S. signed in 2002, forces refugees to attempt illegal border crossings.

Manitoba RCMP are tasked with securing about 520 kilometres of the Canada-U.S. border, the world's longest that's undefended. 

"We have people and technology to protect that border, but people do enter illegally," RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel said in an email.

Dench said some people fleeing their home countries with the intention of coming to Canada go the U.S. first, because it's easier to fly into.

But others who are crossing the border illegally may have intended to make the U.S. their home and been put off by the recent American election, she said.

"Maybe they've been there for some time but they're worried about the implications of the change in administration in the U.S., with the various promises that incoming president [Donald] Trump has made," she said.

"Obviously people [who] are Muslim, people who are generally without status in the U.S., may feel like they're not going to be able to get protection if they are refugees."