A growing number of asylum seekers are braving freezing cold temperatures to walk into Canada from the US, driven by fears of what Donald Trump’s presidency will mean for refugees, advocates say.
Last week, amid the chaos and uncertainty triggered by Trump’s travel ban, one agency dedicated to resettling refugees and immigrants opened an unprecedented 10 refugee claims in one day. Eight of the claimants had walked into Canada in order to avoid detection by border officials.
On Tuesday, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said another 22 people had walked across the border and into Canada over the weekend; 19 of them on Saturday and three on Sunday.
“They’re not crossing at the actual point where there’s an immigration and customs offices,” said Rita Chahal of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. “They’re walking through prairie fields with lots and lots of deep snow. In Europe we’re seeing people in boats; now just imagine a prairie flatland and snow for miles and miles.”
A 2004 pact between Canada and the US, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, forces most migrants to apply for asylum in the first country in which they arrive. As a result, refugee advocates say they’ve seen a spike in asylum seekers from the US taking longer, riskier routes to cross the border into Canada and file claims inland, where the agreement does not apply.
More than 7,000 refugee applicants entered Canada by land in 2016, up 63% from the previous year, according to the Canada Border Services Agency. Another 2,000 are believed to have entered irregularly during the same time period, according to figures from Reuters.
The risks being taken by these asylum seekers were laid bare on Christmas eve, when two refugee claimants, Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, were found trekking through waist-high snow in Manitoba. Their journey into Canada had started in North Dakota with a C$400 cab ride that dropped them within sight of the border.
Mohammed, 24, said he had fled Ghana over fears of being persecuted for being gay and Muslim. After a judge in the US denied his asylum request, he was facing deportation. He met Iyal, 35 and also from Ghana, in the US, and the pair decided to try their luck at making it to Canada.
Woefully underdressed for a winter that ranks among the coldest in recent years, the pair walked for hours, trudging through darkened fields and fighting past brush to make it into Canada. “We didn’t feel any sign, but we could feel we are in Canada, because of the cold – very, very intense,” Mohammed told Macleans magazine. Disoriented from the cold and suffering severe frostbite, the pair eventually stumbled upon a highway, where a trucker stopped to help them.
Both men ended up in hospital; Mohammed had to have all of his fingers amputated, while Iyal lost all of his fingers except for his thumbs to frostbite.
Their journey – and the increasing frequency with which it’s being made – worries Chahal. “We do not, as an organisation want to see anyone lose life or limb while trying to get to safety. We do not want to see an image like what we saw around the world of Alan Kurdi on a prairie field,” she said, referring to the three-year-old Syrian boy whose lifeless body was found on a beach in Turkey in 2015.
Since October of this year, Chahal’s organisation has opened claims for 118 refugees, compared to 50-70 in a typical year. Forty of those claims were opened in January alone. While the refugees hail from around the world, the majority are from Somalia, Ghana and Djibouti.
Her organisation predicts that refugees will continue to arrive in greater numbers in coming months, partly due to the political climate south of the border. “A comment that we might hear is that they’re scared of what’s happening in the US. A couple of people have said they watched what happened in the airports last weekend, they were afraid,” said Chahal. “They’re afraid that they might get put in detention, they might get deported, that their applications won’t be accepted, so they express a lot of fear.”
A similar rise in irregular entries seems to be happening in Québec, British Columbia and Ontario, said Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Her organisation is one of several calling on the Canadian government to increase the number of refugees Canada accepts – particularly in light of Trump’s decision to slash the 2017 intake of refugees from 110,000 to 50,000 – and to withdraw from the agreement that designates the US as a safe country for refugees.
The pact risks driving refugees further underground, said Dench. “At the moment, one of the byproducts of the agreement is that we create incentives for people to cross irregularly and that gives business to smugglers and puts peoples’ lives and their safety at risk.”
Hundreds of protesters gathered in Ottawa last week to form a human chain in front of the US embassy in Ottawa, demanding that Canada repeal the agreement, among other things; an online petition has racked up more than 39,000 signatures.
The country’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, said the Canadian government currently stands by the Safe Third Country Agreement. In a statement to the Guardian, the ministry said the agreement “remains an important tool for Canada and the US to work together on the orderly handling of refugee claims made in our countries”.
Critics say it fails to reflect the stark situation refugees in the US are currently facing. “It is a fictitious reality to continue to pretend that the US is safe for refugees,” said Alex Neve of Amnesty International Canada, pointing to the executive order signed by Trump that seeks to temporarily halt the admission of refugees and ban Syrian refugees indefinitely.
In an open letter to Canada’s minister of immigration, Amnesty International in Canada and the US joined forces in calling on Canada to strip the US of its designation as a safe country for refugees. “We are strongly of the view that in this context Canada cannot wait to see how things continue to develop in the days and weeks to come,” the organisation noted in the letter.
“The situation has become so volatile, so entirely unpredictable and marked by such wholesale disregard for international human rights that to allow the designation of the United States to continue for even another day would be utterly untenable,” it added.