At the Emerson, Manitoba border as more refugees flee Donald Trump’s America
In the pin-drop silence of a winter night in Emerson, Manitoba, residents say if you listen closely, chances are you’ll hear the sound of feet crunching against the snow. It used to happen once every so often, but now with greater frequency — asylum seekers walking north across the train tracks that run parallel to the Canada-U.S. border and emerging in this tiny town.
Early Sunday morning, just before the sun came up around 6 a.m., a police truck with flashing lights drove quietly towards a small huddle of people on a street that runs perpendicular to the tracks, on the edge of the town.
The group of 10 — among them a baby, a toddler, and a pregnant woman — were already being escorted by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers into their vehicles, which would take them to be processed by border officials.
“We’ve been walking for three and half hours.”
“We’ve been walking for three and half hours,” said one man, one of the few English speakers in the group of mostly Francophones from Djibouti, everyone bundled up in layers to guard themselves against the Southern Manitoba cold.
“She’s pregnant,” he said, pointing to one of the women, as the RCMP officer prompted them to get inside a second vehicle that had arrived by that point. Clearly exhausted, the newcomers still smiled and chatted excitedly amongst themselves.
After everyone was seated, the officer informed the group they’d be taken to the Canada Border Services Agency, where they would be able to file a refugee claim.
At least for some, it was the beginning of the end of a long, arduous journey that had taken them from their home country in West Africa, across the Atlantic Ocean, up through South and Central America and into the United States.
So far this year, 77 people have entered Canada illegally through the Manitoba border, a sharp rise from 2014, when a total of 146 migrants were intercepted. In Quebec, that number jumped from 42 in January of 2015 to 452 last month. At the end of January, chaos ensued after U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order on immigration that shut out visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
“We survived through sheer luck.”
While the courts have put that order on hold, many refugees and immigrants from those countries are on edge. On Tuesday, the Trump administration released memos that prioritize any illegal immigrant who’s been convicted of a crime — even shoplifting or a minor traffic violation — for deportation.
The uncertainty has sent hundreds of people looking to Canada, a place increasingly seen as a haven after welcoming in more than 40,000 Syrian refugees. After Trump’s executive orders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted Canada would continue to welcome those fleeing persecution, terror and war “regardless of your faith;” over the weekend, a photo of a smiling RCMP officer holding a child whose family is crossing the Quebec border went viral.
The reality, however, is not as sunny. An agreement that prevents people entering through the US from seeking asylum in Canada is driving more and more refugees underground, forcing them endure extreme weather conditions to walk across illegally. The Canadian government has no plans to revisit that arrangement, but Trudeau said on Tuesday that Canada will continue to accept those who make it across.
“We survived through sheer luck,” said Paashe, one of 22 people who entered Canada illegally on Sunday night in Manitoba, speaking with VICE News in Winnipeg’s Salvation Army, where he and others are staying.
The shelter has opened its doors to 30 refugee claimants to help a settlement organization in the city that’s now at capacity, and some of Paashe’s fellow travellers had gone out to find a wifi signal to connect with their families, in the middle of a gloomy day.
“If I could convey one message, it would be don’t cross the border in this kind of a situation,” said the lanky former English teacher from Somalia, who only wanted to be identified by his first name because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his refugee claim.
It’s the same message the RCMP has been pushing for weeks now. On Saturday, bombarded with media requests, Manitoba RCMP Commanding Officer Scott Kolody addressed a group of reporters near the border where some asylum seekers have been intercepted.
“Very dangerous. There’s everything from barbed wire fences to drainage ditches,” he said. “We’re looking at flood season coming in. These fields will be very muddy.”
“The last thing we want to see is somebody out in the field and they don’t make it through.”
The RCMP has been monitoring the day to day situation, adding officers and technology that Kolody didn’t elaborate on. This past weekend, when temperatures rose to above zero and clear skies allowed the moonlight to illuminate the way, they braced for the greatest deluge yet.
Kolody said many who make the trek are completely unprepared for the weather. In December, two Ghanaian men suffered severed frostbite, and one had to have all of his fingers amputated after walking for about 10 hours.
“The last thing we want to see is somebody out in the field and they don’t make it through.”
On Saturday, no one came. But the next night, starting at 9 p.m., people began appearing in the vast snowy fields, and entering the sleepy town of Emerson.
The tiny community on the border of Manitoba and North Dakota, populated by farmers, former border officers, and small business owners, has been the centre of attention for weeks as one of the easiest ways to get into Canada undetected.
Sitting on the edge of town, you can see the abandoned Noyes border crossing, shuttered in 2006, just a few hundred yards south of the dividing line, with only a few trees obscuring the view. Logically, it’s the best place to be dropped off, since you only have to walk across the train tracks to get into Canada, where an RCMP officer will pick you up escort you to the border agency.
Yet, many who have made the journey across have been in far more dangerous situations.
Paashe, whose group paid hundreds of dollars per head for a ride from a bus terminal in Grand Forks, ND, said the driver had dropped them off on the side of a road and pointed them to Canada. The walk, they were told, would take 45 minutes.
“The minute we walked in, we sank into the snow. The mother also sank, and she started crying, and we tried to calm her down,” said Paashe. The men took turns carrying her little boy, until they came across a set of rail tracks, around which the snow had melted. They walked along the train tracks, ducking at any sign of light in case it was a border patrol car. They had only a vague idea of where they were going.
Hours later, after a surprise encounter with two reporters, who told them they were close to Canada, the group found themselves at an abandoned building — the Noyes border crossing. The child was in severe pain, said Paashe, who decided to call 9-1-1, believing they were already in Canada. An American operator answered, and for a moment, Paashe thought they’d been caught and it had all been for nothing.
But to everyone’s relief, the operator transferred the call to Canadian emergency services, and the group was met by the RCMP.
“These people, they welcomed us, with open hands and everything. I am grateful to them,” he said. “People need to understand why people are risking their lives. It’s because they’re afraid to go back and face certain death.”
Locals on the U.S. side of the border have long known about refugees passing through their town.
“Trump’s got everybody scared out of their goddamn minds.”
A couple shopping at a convenience store told VICE News that while they hadn’t encountered anyone making the trip themselves, they’d heard stories of shoes and bags being found in nearby farm fields, presumably belonging to someone who had walked across.
“Kind of like Sasquatch.”
At a Gastrack in Pembina, the last gas station off the I-29 before the border, would-be asylum seekers can sometimes be found loitering in the restaurant area.
A staff member, who didn’t want to be named because management had instructed employees not to comment, told VICE News that “border jumpers” are “coming in bigger numbers now.”
“A lot of the times, [border patrol] will follow them in after they’ve gone to the border and get turned away,” he said, about asylum seekers attempting to cross through the port of entry. “I’ve seen them sit here for a couple of days until someone picks them up and takes them away.”
“Trump’s got everybody scared out of their goddamn minds,” he said.
Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S., introduced in the aftermath of 9/11, says asylum seekers must make a claim in their first country of arrival, on the basis that both Canada and the U.S. are safe countries for refugees. With a few exceptions, anyone who shows up from the U.S. at a Canadian port of entry will be turned away.
But there is a loophole in the agreement that refugees have been taking advantage of — it doesn’t cover anyone who crosses between points of entry and makes an inland asylum claim. Once they are on Canadian soil, refugee claimants are entitled to have their case heard.
Sometimes, border rejects on the American side will get a room a short drive over at the Red Roost Motel, in Pembina. In the last month, owner Vanessa Trosdahl has hosted three guests who have tried and failed to get into Canada — one Somali man, who told Trosdahl he’d been brought back by police, was staying at the motel as she spoke with VICE News.
“They try to hide a lot of things and hide themselves,” said Trosdahl’s daughter McLaine Searle. “Sometimes, they wear black and keep their faces covered.”
“Are they running due to the law, or are they running because of what Trump said?”
“If the stories that some of them are telling me are true, they’re very sad… it does touch you,” she said, recalling one woman whose U.S. visa was about to expire. “I cried with that lady because she didn’t know what she was going to do.”
In Emerson, the reaction is divided. While some are sympathetic to the plight of asylum seekers, others have grown frustrated by the extra work and weary of the strangers coming in at night.
Some locals have been startled out of their sleep when asylum seekers have knocked on their door, desperate for help. Greg Janzen, the town’s reeve, say it’s put an unnecessary amount of stress on emergency workers.
“We’re an open country, we accept everybody. Just go through the legal channels when getting into Canada. Like, why are they leaving there illegally to come here?” said Joanne Kehler, who runs a cafe attached to the hotel. “Is there something wrong? We don’t know. Are they running due to the law, or are they running because of what Trump said?”
As far as Tim Hoffman is concerned, the U.S. president has got it right with his proposed refugee ban.
“I know what their doctrine is,” says Hoffman, who runs an online business and has learned everything he knows about Islam from Fox News. “Their doctrine is to have everybody in the world be a Muslim, and if you’re not a Muslim, then you’re an enemy of Mohammed … The underlying agenda isn’t what it is on the surface.”
Leanne Dupuis, however, isn’t bothered by the newcomers. She hasn’t personally interacted with any border hoppers, but has seen them sitting on the side of the highway.
“It concerns me that it’s families now, and not just single men,” she said. “But am I scared? No. And I live a couple hundred meters from the border.”
And Wayne Pfiel, a bartender at the Emerson Hotel, said he’d helped some 40 people over the years, after seeing them struggle across the snowy terrain.
“Once there was four people, and they were asking if they were in Canada yet, and I said, yeah, you are in Canada. They said, ‘Can you call the immigration?’” he said. Another time, a group of six people rented two rooms at the hotel. “They were cold and I ended up offering them food and coffee. They’d been walking for four or five hours. I feel bad for them.”
Paashe said he was a member of a marginalized clan in Somalia, and a target for the Islamist militants of Al-Shabaab because he is a Sufi and was seen as promoting Western culture and values as an English teacher. He fled Somalia for Brazil in 2015 with the help of a smuggler, and made his way up to the US through the Mexico border.
“I thought the U.S. was a champion for human rights,” said Paashe, who loved American culture, Hollywood, and the NBA. “But what happened and what I believed was the opposite.” He recalled being roughed up by American border guards at the Mexican border, who hurled profanities at him and the others he was travelling with. VICE News was unable to independently verify Paashe’s claims.
After being detained for a year and three months, with little access to counsel, Paashe moved in with a relative in Boston. His claim was ultimately rejected.
“I thought the U.S. was a champion for human rights.”
Lawyers say there are systemic barriers that prevent certain refugees from making successful refugee claims. Somalia, for example, is an active war zone, where obtaining proper identification documents can be impossible.
“I was not given an opportunity to get a witness or anything. I was confined. There’s no way. The bar is very high,” said Paashe.
“Then Trump came to power,” said Paashe, on what ultimately drove him to take the risk and walk to Canada. Somalia is one of the seven countries targeted by the travel ban. “If I am deported home, I will face the same problems I ran away from. It will be suicidal to stay in the United States… Die trying instead of doing nothing.”
Cover: All images by Caroline Wintoniw for VICE News