Why refugees are choosing to cross into Manitoba instead of Saskatchewan

Manitoba is seeing a dramatic increase in refugees travelling over its land border from the United States to claim refugee status in Canada, according to figures from the Canadian Border Services Agency.

So why isn't Saskatchewan seeing the same rise?

Manitoba immigration and refugee lawyer Bashir Khan said the prairie provinces, with their open fields and lack of forests, are the ideal place to attempt a land crossing without stopping at the border.

Khan has represented at least 125 asylum-seekers in the past five years who have made their way into Manitoba this way.

But while Manitoba offers legal aid to refugees, the provincial government confirmed in an email that Saskatchewan is one of four provinces that does not.

"It is a lack of access, lack of availability of justice basically," Khan said.

New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia also only provide legal aid for criminal and family matters.

"If someone is making a refugee claim in Saskatchewan they have to spend their own money from their own private funds to hire a lawyer and they simply do not have any money," Khan said.

The lack of aid is leading many refugees to chose Manitoba over Saskatchewan, he said.

That was certainly the case for one of Khan's clients in 2014, Jamila Bibi.

Bibi, who was accused of adultery in Pakistan, was working as a cook in Saskatoon.

Khan said Bibi hired a lawyer in Saskatchewan to do her refugee claim hearing, but then ran out of money and couldn't appeal her case.

Eventually, Khan accepted her as a client out of Manitoba.

"I only became her lawyer at the end of the process when she was getting deported. And that's when I realized how horrible, unfriendly and unwelcoming Saskatchewan was to refugee claimants who have no money," Khan said.

Bibi was deported in September 2014 and is banned from entering Canada again because of that.

Making the trek

The number of people claiming refugee status at Saskatchewan's borders spiked last year, but nowhere near as much as in Manitoba.

In 2016, 26 people made claims at Saskatchewan's land border, according to figures provided to CBC News by Canada Border Services Agency. That's up from two in 2015, and three the year before that.

Meanwhile in Manitoba, the Canadian Border Services Agency said last month that 410 asylum-seekers crossed the border from April-December 2016, up from 340 the year before and 136 the year before that.

Both CBSA and the RCMP have said they don't have a number for people who are crossing over into Saskatchewan that didn't use the official border crossing.

Khan said people who claim refugee status at the border crossing are generally sent back to America, under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement.

Those who bypass the border to make their claims, however, are protected under Article 31 of the Geneva Convention treaties, according to Khan.

The article states that no country may penalize refugees that enter the country illegally, provided they show good cause for their entry.

"Therefore it is never, ever, ever, ever an illegal act for the refugee claimant to enter Canada, even though they're coming from an open field," Khan said.

Questions of constitutionality

Khan had strong words for Saskatchewan's lack of legal aid for refugees.

"I believe it is unconstitutional," he said, citing section 7 of the Canadian Rights and Freedoms Act.

The section guarantees that everyone has the legal right to life, liberty and security.

He said that refugee's rights are being affected by not having access to justice and a lawyer, and being unable to pay for one.

CBC has reached out to the Ministry of Justice on the matter and is waiting for a response.

Funding not likely to change: Legal Aid Saskatchewan

As for whether the legal aid funding for refugees is going to change in the near future, Craig Goebel, CEO of Legal Aid Saskatchewan, said it's not likely.

"I'm given to understand that whatever the envelope or funding amount is has not changed, is not likely to change for next year," Goebel said.

The federal government decides which provinces get legal aid funding for immigration and refugees, according to Goebel,

He said in order for Legal Aid Saskatchewan to offer services for refugee claimants, the province would need to reach out and ask for additional legal aid funding from the federal government.

"If the Ministry of Justice felt it was appropriate to undertake this through legal aid, then it would be the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice to ask for that funding to be applied from the federal government," Goebel said.

​CBC is also waiting for a reply from the Department of Justice on the matter.

Supportive community

Khan said that aside from being better in terms of financial aid, Winnipeg is home to a large and vibrant African community that attracts refugees.

He said Saskatchewan is not well known for having that.

Proximity to Minneapolis also plays a part, he said, as many people enter the country through Minneapolis's international airport. Winnipeg is just 700 kilometres northwest of there.

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