'Pallister is right': Emerson official urges feds to address asylum-seeker surge

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Emerson reeve says military at border would be overkill

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is right to keep pressuring the federal government to do more to help address the wave of refugees streaming into the province, a local official in the border town of Emerson says.

"Mr. Pallister is right: we need to start ramping this up now instead of trying to play catch up later," said Greg Janzen, reeve of the Emerson-Franklin rural municipality.  

"The RCMP are trying to do their best here and it would be nice to have even more manpower to try and keep these people from coming into the town of Emerson."

More than 200 asylum seekers from around the world have walked north across Manitoba's shared southern border with North Dakota and Minnesota since the beginning of the year, some crossing amid dangerously cold temperatures or in the middle of snowstorms.

More help from Ottawa

Janzen said he appreciates the help Emerson has received so far, but he also agrees with Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister's repeated calls on Ottawa to do more to address the asylum seeker issue in Manitoba.

Pallister wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and has been urging the federal government to work together with Manitoba to chart a joint path forward.

Last week, a group of 17 asylum seekers, including a pregnant woman and a toddler, crossed in the middle of a days-long blizzard that closed schools and highways across the south of the province.

Janzen said he and his constituents remain committed to helping however they can after the latest surge, although the storm meant local first responders and fire crews had to put in extra hours monitoring the border through near-whiteout conditions.

"It's been relatively quiet since, but I don't know if it's calm before the storm," Janzen said.

Recently, Janzen said the demographics have changed. Many border crossers this winter have been of Somali, Eritrean and Djiboutian origin. That's now changed, Janzen said, and more are coming from South and Central America, including Nicaragua and Colombia.

Drawing refugees to Manitoba

Janzen speculated that the high-profile nature and international coverage of the border crossing phenomenon could be drawing more asylum seekers to Manitoba. 

He said he remains concerned for the safety of both people from Emerson and asylum seekers. But, he says, there is also an ongoing possibility that people with criminal records from abroad could see an opportunity in Manitoba. 

"This has gotten a lot of media coverage, so maybe some of these people that might have criminal records wherever they are now, maybe they are fleeing from their own law," Janzen said.

"Maybe they're thinking they can sneak in the same way and not be detected."

Janzen admitted he has no proof of any asylum seekers with a criminal record being intercepted by border officials or RCMP.

With temperatures expected to climb to around the 10 C mark on Sunday, Janzen said more people could try to cross the border on foot. But it's also become increasingly hard to base such predictions on weather forecasts, he added.

"As it warms up, we are going to get more of these people because they're not risking their lives as much, so it's easier for them to come across," Janzen said. 

No update on numbers

RCMP refused to provide CBC News with updated numbers on asylum seekers who have crossed into Manitoba. 

"The RCMP will no longer be releasing weekly numbers regarding people illegally crossing the border from the United States into Manitoba as we are looking at providing a more consolidated approach," an RCMP spokesperson said. 

The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. states individuals are legally required to file for refugee status in the first "safe" country in which they arrive. Officials at border crossings are to turn back anyone who tries to cross into Canada who has already filed for refugee status in the U.S.

While the act of walking across the border at an unofficial crossing is considered illegal, a United Nations convention ultimately has the power to override the Safe Third Country Agreement.

When a prospective refugee claimant walks into Manitoba from the U.S. they are protected from immediate deportation and allowed to file to stay in Canada.