Emerson fire officials practice water rescues as asylum seekers cross flooded fields

1 / 2
Emerson fire officials practice water rescues as asylum seekers cross flooded fields

Fire officials in Emerson and Dominion City have been practising water rescues in case asylum seekers find themselves in trouble as they walk across flooded fields into Manitoba from the U.S.

Jay Ihme, a fire department safety officer, said his team was out on Monday evening with flotation suits, two zodiacs and an airboat on a flooded golf course to go over training.

- 'We're going to run into problems': Manitoba flood would endanger asylum seekers

"With the water being higher now and the rivers having backed up, there's always a chance we may need some kind of resuce attempt," Ihme said. "With the fields covered in water, we'll never know when we have to go out."

Hundreds of asylum seekers have walked into Canada from the U.S. over the past year, avoiding official ports of entry so they aren't sent back under the Safe Third Country agreement, which requires them to make a refugee claim in the country where they first arrive.

At least 14 people walked across the Canada-U.S. border into Emerson on the weekend, Emerson's reeve said, and overland flooding continues to pose a risk.

"Right now we have some natural drains that are anywhere from six to eight feet deep that people would have to swim across to get into Emerson if they took the wrong path," Greg Janzen said.

Asylum seekers spreading out

Two people were found crossing near Dominion City, Man., on the weekend and Janzen said he suspects floodwaters are forcing asylum seekers to take alternative routes.

"These people are spreading out a little bit more because of the high waters. Local officials have to cover a bigger area, and I don't know if they have enough manpower," he said. 

If people get stranded south of the border, it adds another challenge, Ihme said.

"We can't go in a lot of those fields because then we'd be illegally entering the U.S.," he said, adding authorities in Pembina, N.D., would have to call on his team for mutual aid, as they do for fire emergencies.​

So far, the fire department hasn't had to rescue anyone, but Janzen expects the number of crossing asylum seekers  to continue to grow as floodwaters recede.