'Someone is going to slip through': Worry grows over influx of asylum seekers

'Someone is going to slip through': Worry grows over influx of asylum seekers

Greg Janzen, the reeve of Emerson, Man., where dozens of would-be refugee claimants have recently crossed the porous Canada-U.S. border, says some area residents are beginning to express anxiety about the influx.

The small border town of 671 has been galvanized to help asylum seekers, and the issue has certainly put the community on the map, attracting media attention from across the globe. Janzen said he's done 95 television interviews over the last two weeks. Before that he'd only done one, a dozen years ago.

But as the number of asylum seekers continues to surge, it's beginning to put a strain on local resources and raise some security concerns over potential risks to the residents, he said.

"It's starting to get concerning, because the numbers are growing," Janzen said.

So far, the asylum seekers have caused no trouble, and there have been no confrontations. Most residents seem more than happy to help out.

But Janzen said there are worries that someone, possibly with a criminal background, might be able to sneak in among the asylum seekers and into their community.

"I'm scared, the bigger the numbers — if we don't have enough officials, someone is going to slip through the crack because there's so many people to process."

'It's about to blow'

Janzen said he's concerned that someone with criminal intent could break into a home, or attempt to steal a car, which could lead to a clash with a member of the community.

"It's about to blow. I think there's going to be confrontations," Janzen said. "There's going to be an incident."

While it's illegal to cross the border into Canada by evading official border points, once an individual is in the country, he or she is able to claim refugee status.

The federal Manitoba Conservative caucus has also expressed its concerns about the spike in illegal border crossings, a phenomenon some attribute to U.S. President Donald Trump's tough stance on illegal immigration and his controversial travel ban.

"Canada is a safe and welcoming country, but we must also take steps to protect our border and ensure the process for entering our country is consistent and fair for all seeking refuge in Canada," the caucus said in a statement.

The caucus urged the federal government to beef up resources to strengthen the security of the border.

Otherwise, the current situation, the caucus says, "rewards those that are entering Canada illegally and acts as a disincentive to proceed through the fair, legitimate application process."

"We have a port of entry for a reason, because that's where we expect people that want to enter into our county to come," said federal MP Ted Falk, chair of the Manitoba Conservative caucus, whose riding includes Emerson.

Under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, a person must make their refugee claim in the first safe country they arrive in.

As a result, however, those who first arrive in the U.S. but show up at the border seeking to come into Canada and make a refugee claim will likely be turned back. (There are a few exceptions — for example, if the claimant has a family member in Canada.)

Falk acknowledged he hasn't heard that any of those who have crossed the border recently may pose a threat. But he said there has been some anxiety among residents who have been woken up by those seeking asylum.

Asylum seekers pound the door

"Quite often [the asylum seekers] come in the middle of the night, they pound on the door, ring the doorbell, tap on the glass. Some [residents] are quite anxious about that situation," Falk said.

"We don't know the people who are coming across. Are they all coming across because of a desire to seek a better life? Or are they coming across perhaps because they are criminals?"

Federal Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said what needs to be emphasized to people who might be considering crossing the border is that it is an illegal act.

"We shouldn't be romanticizing this to anyone who is considering this as an option," she said. "This is something that should not be attempted," she said.

"Do we have the resources in place to enforce these laws? I think we have to stay on top of that."

Strain on human resources

Many would-be refugee claimants cross in snowy fields, often in brutal, freezing weather conditions, and some have suffered severe frostbite.

Bill Spanjer, municipal emergency co-ordinator for Emerson-Franklin, said some of the local resources of Emerson are being taxed  —  particularly the paid volunteers who must respond to every 911 call regarding an asylum seeker.

"I think the ones that are most taxed are the ones who are running out at 3:30 in the morning … looking for these people," Spanjer said.

There are 21 members of the fire department, but eight of those are specially trained as medical responders, meaning one of those within that group must attend every call. As well, it's a paid volunteer force and most have full-time jobs.

"They're getting called out of their beds of all hours of the night because most of these incidents are happening at night," Spanjer said.

And with more asylum seekers expected, "we can certainly see this having some effect" on the emergency responders, Spanjer said.

Jay Ihme, a fire department safety officer for Emerson and one of the handful who have special medical training, also works as a butcher.

"It's getting slightly taxing, and it's the anticipation of when's the other shoe going to drop," he said. "Is this going to continue on every night or is it going to be every weekend?" 

"But yeah, it is getting a bit trying."