Manitoba refugee agency inundated with claimants fleeing U.S.

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
A Syrian refugee child walks barefoot on frozen ground at the refugee camp of Ritsona about 86 kilometers north of Athen on Jan. 11, 2017. Photo from The Canadian Press

In a typical year, a Manitoba front-line refugee organization sees 60 or 70 people ask for their help in seeking refuge in Canada.

In just 10 months last year, the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council saw more than 80 new clients come through its doors.

Eighty per cent of them crossed the border into Manitoba from the United States.

“We’re seeing a huge increase,” Rita Chahal, the organization’s executive director, told Yahoo Canada News.

Most of those coming from south of the border have had their applications rejected in the U.S., she said.

“They fear deportation, and so they’re seeking another opportunity and taking extreme risks to seek protection and freedom,” Chahal said. “If somebody fears for their life, they’re looking for safety. So they are taking extreme, extreme risks.”

Those risks became very real last month when two men from Ghana suffered frostbite and ended up in hospital after walking seven hours in -20 C temperatures to cross the border near Emerson, Man.

One is expected to lose some of his fingers to frostbite.

“I don’t regret it,” Seidu Mohammad told CBC News. “That’s life — trying to survive.”

Chahal said the agency is seeing an increase in similar “high risk” attempts.

In the nine months from April to December, figures provided by Canada Border Services show 410 refugee claimants crossed the border illegally near Emerson.

For comparison, there were 68 from April 2013 to March 2014, 136 in that period of 2014 to 2015 and 340 in 2015 to 2016.

The majority of people crossing the border illegally near Emerson to make a refugee claim are from Somalia, according to the agency.

The increase appears to coincide with the election of Donald Trump as president in the U.S.

Trump ran a campaign heavily focussed on illegal immigrants, promising mass deportations and floating the idea of a Muslim registry.

While reluctant to comment on the political climate in the U.S., Chahal said anecdotally that the majority of the claimants over the past few months seem to be Muslim, most from Somalia, Eritrea, Ghana and Djibouti.

In 2015, a man from Somalia made headlines when he swam the Red River from North Dakota to Manitoba. While most claims fail, Yahya Samatar was granted permanent resident status.

The spike is straining resources at the organization, which offers paralegal help and services for refugees seeking asylum in Manitoba.

The council does not receive federal funding and has a commitment of provincial funding only until March. Without a cash infusion, Chahal said they expect to run out of funds by October.

As for the two men who crossed the border in frigid temperatures, they have been taken on as clients. And while Chahal declined to give specifics on their condition, she did say the pair are in good spirits.

“They’re really happy to be alive and to know that there is help for them, whatever the outcome may be.”