Months of worry about the worst possible scenario — an asylum seeker dying in an attempt to illegally cross the border into Canada — became a reality last week after the body of a woman was found a short distance away from the border.
The Kittson County Sheriff’s department was informed on Thursday about a 57-year-old missing woman named Mavis Otuteye, last believed to be in the county on Monday. She is believed to have died from hypothermia.
Along with U.S. Border Patrol’s officers, officials from the Sheriff’s department found Otuteye in a ditch about a kilometre away from the border in Noyes, Minnesota.
A preliminary autopsy showed that she died of hypothermia, but police, who said their investigation showed she had been trying to enter Canada when she died, are still waiting on a final autopsy.
According to the latest numbers, from January to April of this year, the RCMP intercepted 477 people attempting to make the same journey in Manitoba, of a total of 859 interceptions across the country.
And for months, RCMP officers have worried that someone will die in the attempt, especially walking through the frozen farm fields to get to the small town of Emerson, M.B. on the Canadian side of the border.
In February, as temperatures rose above zero and Emerson prepared for a spike in border hoppers coming into the town, Manitoba RCMP Commanding Officer Scott Kolody told VICE News many who were making the trek were completely unprepared for the severe weather conditions — in December, two Ghanaian men suffered from frostbite and lost their fingers 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,” said Kolody at the time.
Emerson’s reeve Greg Janzen was taken aback when he received the call informing him of the death on Tuesday night.
“It’s not 30 below, there’s no flood waters. It caught me totally off guard actually. I always thought in the back of my mind that there will be a loss of life here soon, but I didn’t expect it at this time of year,” he said. “We thought it would be in the winter or the spring flood.”
Janzen said there’s the odd day when there aren’t any interception, but last he heard, the Manitoba border had six crossings a day on average, and they’ve continued at the same pace.
Asylum seekers from the US have been flooding into Canada by the hundreds since late 2016. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement that the US has with Canada, asylum seekers must make their claims in the first country of arrival, with a few exceptions. But a loophole in the agreement means anyone who manages to get on Canadian soil, even if they cross illegally between designated points of entry, is entitled to have their claim heard.
Immigration lawyers and activists have long been calling for the agreement to be scrapped and for refugees from the U.S. to be allowed to seek asylum in Canada freely, and Janzen agrees.
“I think the federal government should quit monitoring and do something before there’s more people losing their lives,” he said. “It’s kind of baffling. We need to allow these people to come in through the port of entry where it’s safe if we’re going to keep allowing them to come in.”
Cover: Caroline Wintoniw