Canada sees huge surge of refugees and asylum seekers crossing from the United States on foot

Following the Midwest Passage: Asylum seekers take a cold journey to Manitoba via Trump’s America

Refugees cross to Canada to escape Donald Trump

On the third weekend of February, Justin Giovannetti and photographer Ian Willms followed 22 asylum seekers who crossed the American border into Canada near the town of Emerson, Man. They are part of a growing tide who, fearful of increased security in the U.S. under the Trump administration, are risking their lives to go north.

Looking through the darkness, Abdullahi Warsame fixes his gaze on the distant porch lights of a rural Manitoba house. After an arduous 11-month journey that spanned three continents and a dozen countries, the Somali man is just a short walk from Canada – less than a kilometre now.

It’s 3:05 a.m. and eerily quiet as he trudges along the deserted highway in northern Minnesota with a cousin and a friend, all three from Somalia’s war-torn capital of Mogadishu. In his left hand, Mr. Warsame is clutching court documents for a pending asylum hearing in Minnesota that he won’t attend.

The 45-year-old former cloth salesman is afraid of the new U.S. President, concerned about his plans to ban citizens from travelling to the U.S. from a number of Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.

Lul Abdi Ali, her face covered, struggles to walk beside Mr. Warsame after the long trek. She’s tired and cold. Delmar Xasan, the youngest of the three, in his late 20s, fled Somalia when al-Shabaab jihadists killed his brother. Mr. Xasan says they’ll kill him if he goes back to Somalia.

Asylum seekers Abdullahi Warsame, Lul Abdi Ali and Delmar Xasan.

For years, Mr. Warsame had aspired to the American Dream and risked his life for a chance to make it in Minneapolis. But he struggled to find a job and the increasingly heated rhetoric about Muslims scared him. Walking this Midwestern highway in the hours before dawn, as his breath hangs in front of him and the temperature hovers just above freezing, his eyes are focused on a final shot at freedom – Canada.

They travel without luggage: The three had to abandon their bags the previous day during a failed attempt to cross along the banks of the Red River. They have little more than the clothes on their backs.

“Canada a very good country,” he says in halting English. “In the U.S., there are no jobs, it’s no good. We had to go to Canada or back to Somalia.”

A kilometre shy of the border, an American customs agent in and SUV spots the three Somalis walking in the darkness. The SUV surges forward and stops beside the asylum seekers. The customs agent begins questioning them in the glare of the headlights. He wants to see their documents, but it’s too hard to read the detailed papers on the side of the dark country road. The agent needs to know if they have any outstanding warrants, so he loads them into an SUV and quickly escorts them back to the nearby town of Pembina, N.D. The lights of Canada recede in the rear-view mirror as the car pulls away.

Refugee claimant Asha Ahmed came to Canada two months ago. She was once the acting minister for women’s rights for Puntland state in Somalia, before her life was threatened by al-Shabaab. She now lives in Winnipeg while she waits for her refugee claim hearing. Here, she cleans up after lunch in the apartment that she shares with other asylum seekers.

Yahya Samatar, from Somalia, works as a fundraising co-ordinator at Creaddo Group in Winnipeg. He first came to Canada in August 2015, by hiking and swimming north in the Red River. Since then he has been granted refugee status and sends money home to to support his family.

The border

On the third weekend of February, The Globe and Mail followed 22 asylum seekers who crossed the American border into Canada near the town of Emerson, Man. Other would-be asylum seekers from towns and cities in the U.S. also made the crossing at the border in Quebec. Like Mr. Warsame and his friends, who expected their travels to end in the U.S., they headed to Canada as a last resort. This final, and potentially perilous leg of their journey, owes much to a refugee agreement negotiated between Canada the United States more than a decade ago.

Signed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the Safe Third Country agreement requires that a refugee claim be heard in the country in which an asylum seeker first arrives. If that claimant applies for refugee status at a port of entry in a second country, he or she will be quickly returned to the first country.

Asylum seekers headed to Minnesota’s northern border know that the Safe Third Country agreement applies to them only if they cross at the border station at the end of I-29. It doesn’t apply to them if they cross illegally. Once their two feet have landed in Canada, they have the right to a refugee hearing.

There are risks to a covert crossing. Seidu Mohammed, a Ghanaian refugee, almost died during a trek on Christmas Eve. He lost all his fingers and a toe to severe frostbite.

Many of the refugee claimants who crossed illegally on the weekend of Feb. 18 said they were aware of the risks but knew it was the only way to circumvent the Safe Third Country agreement.

The number of asylum claimants from all countries into Canada reached a record of 36,867 in 2008 and declined over the following years. As of Feb. 13 this year, Canada has received claims from 3,802 asylum seekers, including those who have crossed the border illegally.

Here in southern Manitoba, many would-be asylum seekers said that taxis had dropped them off more than four kilometres from the border, west of Emerson. Left alone at the edge of rutted dirt roads, they are told to walk through fields of waist-deep snow to reach Canada. Their target: dozens of flashing red lights on the horizon, a wind farm in Manitoba.

Once they cross the unmarked border, they’re in a largely unoccupied stretch of Canada. There is little traffic and few farmhouses. During a cold snap, it can take hours to find someone to call the authorities for help.

Standing in the fields, they can hear the sounds of traffic and see the bright lights of the modern border station to the east. Dogs bark in the distance.

The snow is flat and crunchy. Within a few steps, they will sink up to their knees, sometimes to their waists. Their boots will quickly fill with snow, and their toes start to freeze. It’s exhausting, lifting each leg straight out of the snow and coming down like a steam shovel. In the quiet of the winter night, crossing into Canada is a lonely act.

While some of the asylum seekers follow the Red River to the border, most opt for the easier route taken by Mr. Warsame’s group, which ends in the centre of Emerson. That passage follows a largely deserted highway to the shuttered border stations that had linked central Manitoba with Minnesota for decades. There, all that blocks them from their destination is a yellow gate and a snowbank.

Two asylum seekers, a woman and young girl, cross the Canadian border, in Noyes, Minn.

Abandoned clothing lies along the train tracks.

6 a.m.

After Mr. Warsame’s group is led away by the American border patrol, the only sounds are a strong wind and the quiet chugging of a locomotive idling at a nearby rail crossing. Just before 6 a.m., several clusters of men, women and children walk quietly down the same road. With dawn only an hour away, they’re trying to get to Canada before the first rays of light make them easy to spot.
At the front of the group, four young men see two reporters and scatter into nearby trees. They’re only steps from the border. They then run directly to the yellow bar across the road and are in Canada moments later, walking into the sleeping town of Emerson.

A second group continues to march down the road. They’re from Djibouti and speak French and Arabic. “This is because of Trump,” the first man of this group says loudly in French. “We don’t want to be here.”

He’s breathless, yelling “fast, fast” to his group. They travelled up from Minneapolis by taxi and walked for nearly five hours to the border. “God help us. We’ve been walking for hours. It’s slippery and I’m so tired, so exhausted,” said one man in his early 20s. He declined to provide his name, fearful of what would happen if authorities found him.

There are seven in his group. He carries a heavy backpack; the straps are cutting into his arms. He drops it momentarily and waits for the rest of his companions to catch up to him. He beckons them on in Arabic to move faster; they’re close to Canada, he tells them. He then confides to a reporter that he doesn’t know the way but is only following nearby railroad tracks. One of the men in his group has a six-month-old baby in a scarf wrapped around his chest. The baby is sleeping.

Two other men remain quiet during the walk, while a woman in the group gently but urgently pulls her two-year-old daughter by the arm.

The man critical of Mr. Trump says they’ve been told to cross along the railroad tracks. It’s safer. They need to walk over a small hill and alongside a station building painted with the letters BNSF – the name of a railroad network – painted on the side. A train crew is inside, lights on, unaware of the people filing past outside their door.

As the travellers reach the top of the hill, they spot three fawns grazing on the tracks. “Are they wild animals?” the man asks. “Are they dangerous? Will they attack us?”

Beyond the deer, he sees the equipment that customs crews use to inspect rail cars and is told he’s at the border. His eyes go wide and he stops, setting down his bag again. “There are no police,” he says, the relief clear in his voice. He urges the rest of his group to speed up. “God bless Justin Trudeau, God bless all Canadians,” he says with excitement.

The group move quickly along the track. The two-year-old, wearing a silver coat, walks playfully along a single rail with her arms outstretched. Her mother tells her to stop. A few steps later, and they’re in Canada.

Ten minutes later, another group of five people approaches the border at the same spot. One of them, a 30-year-old Somali man, says he has been in the U.S. for seven months but his refugee request has been denied. “I’m concerned that they’ll send me back to Somalia,” he says, declining to provide his name. “I hope Canada will let me stay and let me live free.”

A woman in his group stumbles as they reach the snowbank that marks the end of their struggle out of the U.S. Her young daughter also falters. The woman’s face is twisted in agony as a man picks up her child and carries her through the knee-high snow to Canada.

The woman is walking in leather slippers and her feet are caked in snow. She pulls one slipper off and dumps out the snow.

In the distance, they see a car approaching. The men, fearing that it is the border patrol, start yelling at the woman in slippers to keep moving. She starts crawling through the snow, slowly, painfully. After a few metres, she gets to the yellow gate, stops momentarily before she starts crawling again, over the border. Her daughter has already made her way into a country the woman hopes will give both of them refugee status.

By dawn, 16 men, women and children have crossed into Canada along this route. All of them have been picked up by RCMP officers within minutes of arriving, ushered into a minivan and driven to a nearby border station for medical care and to begin the process of requesting refugee status in Canada.
The first light of the day shows a trail, kilometres long, of items discarded in the dark. Blue baby booties in the middle of the road. A red woman’s scarf on the railroad tracks. A brown scarf is snagged on the rails. Two bags have been dropped, both filled with women’s clothes.


For many would-be refugees, the journey to Canada starts in Minneapolis’s neighbourhood of Cedar-Riverside. An area east of the city’s downtown, where mosques sit beside bars, it’s been nicknamed the Ellis Island of Minnesota by locals, and Little Mogadishu by others. The inner-city neighbourhood contains the largest concentration of the state’s nearly 100,000 Somalis.

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Source: The Globe and Mail

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