WINNIPEG, Canada – What started as a mere spike in new refugee arrivals, has become an established trend of refugees illegally crossing the border from the United States to Canada.
And authorities don’t expect that surge to cease anytime soon.
“At the heart of it all, is this real, very deep fear. Fear for their lives. Fear for persecution. Whether it’s in their home country or the United States, or wherever else they might be coming from,” said Rita Chahal, Executive Director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council – the largest refugee resettlement organization in Manitoba.
According to the Canadian Border Services Agency, 3,461 people were picked up near the border by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) from January through the end of May. Also in late May, authorities reported the first recent death related to attempting the risky crossing: a 57-year-old woman from Ghana is believed to have died of hypothermia during her journey.
Behind the trend is an increasingly discussed agreement: the Safe Third Country agreement between the United States and Canada requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first country they land. But the agreement doesn’t apply if the refugees cross the border illegally.
In the meantime, an official from Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the United States confirmed for KARE 11 they have seen an increase in deportations in recent months. Specifically with regard to the Somali population – Minnesota remains home to the largest Somali community in the United States – the ICE official said from Oct. 1, 2016, to June 17, 2017, 398 Somalis have been deported. In contrast, 198 Somalis were deported during the entire previous fiscal year.
Authorities are quick to note that the change is not solely due to policy changes under President Trump’s administration, stating that changes in countries’ own political environments may also be contributing to the increase.
‘BETTER PLACE TO BE’
Regardless of the factors involved, the reality is felt by those who have braved a risky route – those hoping for a new beginning in Canada.
“I just decided to move to Canada to see if I can get a better place to be,” Abdi Rahman told KARE 11 from his Winnipeg temporary housing in April.
Five days earlier, the 28-year-old man had walked across frozen fields and through icy waters across the border into Canada. He’d initially taken a cab from his home in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, before beginning his overnight trek. It’s the latest leg of a journey for Rahman that started in Somalia and continued in South Africa. In 2010, Rahman moved to Minnesota with his three brothers, a sister and his mom.
“They say they’re going to deport us back, so that’s the reason we don’t want to live there no more. And we don’t have time to go back to Somalia,” Rahman said, adding that if he returned to his native country, “they going to kill me.”
His story is not unlike that of a woman named Halima, whose journey also started in Somalia, continued in Cairo, Egypt, and ended – she had thought – in Rochester, Minnesota, six years ago. The young mother talked to KARE 11 from her room at the Salvation Army in Winnipeg, but she said she was too afraid to give her full name or that of her 18-month-old daughter.
“My biggest fear is that the family will have been separated, my own child would not have been allowed to go with me. And I could have been picked up at any moment, at any time,” she said.
So Halima boarded a bus with her child, caught a taxi to near the border and walked through the icy dark to what she hopes is her new life in Canada.
“We’re hoping that we can have a better opportunity, better life and take care of my daughter,” she said.
THE CANADIAN RESPONSE
Which brings us back to our neighbors to the north and their response to the new arrivals. According to one local leader near the border, not all Canadians welcome the wave of refugees crossing into their country.
"They have their doors locked, they keep them out and they call the police," said Doug Johnston, a firefighter and councilor for the municipality of Emerson-Franklin, a town of 700 people near the Canadian border.
As a firefighter, Johnston himself has seen the dangers endured by those attempting the unofficial crossing.
"We drove in, there was about 17 people in this abandoned garage. It was probably the last spot in town before you go right into the country," Johnston said about the blizzard-like morning when they rescued the group that also included an 18-month-old child.
"It's pretty tough. It's a child. It needs protection," he said.
Once the refugees arrive in larger Canadian cities, they spend their first several days filing a “basis of claim” -- their application to stay in Canada. Chahal says the process, from arrival to a hearing when the refugees learn whether they can stay in Canada, usually takes between two to four months. And while the process rolls along, Chahal’s organization – and others like it – continue to meet the immediate needs of the new arrivals.
“It’s the human aspect of this, not the numbers. It’s the human aspect of it. So our focus is always based on ensuring that people are out of immediate and imminent danger. They have a place to stay, food and shelter, basic human rights,” she said.
But delivering those basic needs also challenges organizations faced with insufficient funding.
“Up to this point, we’ve been covering this totally on our own donations from people who are donating and supporting us, from people who have been kind to the Salvation Army and trust us along the way,” said Major Rob Kerr of The Salvation Army.
At one point, the Winnipeg branch of the Salvation Army was hosting around 90 people a night – in addition to their regular shelter population. Kerr acknowledges organizations like his will need support to continue serving the newest members of their community.
“We haven’t received any funding to this point. We’re hoping that something will come along, because it’s become much more significant than we thought it would be,” Kerr said.
And beyond the dollars, the shelters, the international agreements – people on both sides of the border say they’re also struggling to accept a reality they never could have predicted.
“We’ve never, never anticipated the idea of people fleeing the United States to come to Canada,” Kerr said about the current situation, adding, “We realize it’s not the United States they’re fleeing, but what they’re fleeing is being sent home to their own country."