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Meeting calms fears in Manitoba town seeing influx of border jumpers

From left, Fadel Alshawwa, Jean Pierre Venegas, Manager of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, and Bill Spanjer, Municipal Emergency Coordinator for Emerson-Franklin bring blankets and pillows into a community hall for refugees that may walk across the border in Emerson, Man. Thursday, February 9, 2016. Refugees have been crossing into Canada at Emerson and authorities had a town hall meeting in Emerson to discuss their options. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

From left, Fadel Alshawwa, Jean Pierre Venegas, Manager of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, and Bill Spanjer, Municipal Emergency Coordinator for Emerson-Franklin bring blankets and pillows into a community hall for refugees that may walk across the border in Emerson, Man. Thursday, February 9, 2016. Refugees have been crossing into Canada at Emerson and authorities had a town hall meeting in Emerson to discuss their options. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

EMERSON, Man. — Civic leaders in a Manitoba border town that has seen an increase in refugee claimants crossing over from the United States say the community will continue to be a welcoming place.

Politicians in Emerson met with RCMP, representatives from the federal and provincial governments, and the Canada Border Services Agency on Thursday to address concerns after 22 refugees walked into Canada on the weekend. The locals received assurances they won't have to deal with the issue on their own.

"Everything's gotten straightened out and it is good," Reeve Greg Janzen said after the meeting.

"We are all willing to work together. There has been no negativity. If there is more influx of bigger groups coming through, they assured us that they will have the manpower to handle an influx of refugees."

An increasing number of refugee claimants, mostly from African countries such as Somalia and Ghana, have been risking freezing temperatures and walking through farmers fields to get over the border and into Emerson in the last few months.

Janzen said the unexpected spike over the weekend left the community of roughly 700 scrambling to find shelter for the new arrivals.

The chief concern among residents was any potential safety risk but Janzen said "now we understand how the process is being done, so that makes it more reassuring."

Border services and the RCMP explained to local officials that claimants are searched and screened right away once they are picked up and before they are released to wait out the refugee process.

The town hall was opened to shelter refugees who walked in last weekend. Janzen said the border services agency will rent the hall in the future if it is needed again.

RCMP are responsible for patrolling the border outside of official ports. The force said Thursday it is increasing resources in the Emerson area to intercept border jumpers and take them to officials should they make a refugee claim.

Spokeswoman Tara Seel said officers have no power to turn a border jumper back, only make an arrest after they cross.

Wayne Pfiel works six days a week as a bartender at the Emerson Hotel, the first stop for many refugees after they get over the border.

He said of the 40 or so refugees he's greeted in the hotel's front lobby since starting the job three years ago, 25 to 30 have come in the months following the U.S. election.

"They're cold. They're wearing their winter boots and their winter gear, but they're cold," he said, adding many come suffering from frostbite. "They end up taking their boots and socks off right in the lobby or else I'll let them in the bar and offer them a coffee and something to eat.

"I feel for sad for them, they're walking through the fields and they're walking in the cold."

It can be a dangerous trip in the winter. Two men from Ghana were severely frostbitten in December during their journey across the border.

Officials in Emerson say they've seen more border jumpers in recent months and particularly following planned new restrictions in the United States on refugees.

The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement requires people to apply for asylum in the first country they arrive. If they have already applied as a refugee in the U.S. before showing up at a border port in Canada, and have no blood relatives here, they are turned away.

But if a person crosses into Canada somewhere else and applies as a refugee, the case is heard by Canadian authorities.

The Canadian government has faced pressure to repeal the agreement since the election of President Donald Trump, but has so far refused.

The CBSA says 11,000 refugee claimants were processed at designated ports last year. Figures released earlier this week show more than 2,000 claimants entered "irregularly," with growing numbers in Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia and Yukon. In Manitoba, the RCMP said they intercepted 444 border jumpers last year.

Refugee claimants are released after meeting with a border officer for a couple of hours. They have 15 days to file a claim and a hearing date is set in three to four months.

During that time, they may connect with friends or family or an immigration agency to find a place to live. But many don't have money. Some end up in homeless shelters and rely on legal aid.

They can apply for work permits but that takes three to four months and, by then, their cases have usually been decided.

 

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