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Inside Emerson, the small Manitoba border town being hit with an influx of asylum seekers

Some residents in Emerson are feeling conflicted about whether or not they should open their doors to the asylum seekers who enter their town illegally by walking across the Canada-U.S. border.

Staff at a local hotel in Emerson, Man., wash all the blankets the Canadian Border Services Agency uses to greet asylum seekers who brave the frigid temperatures to cross the U.S-Canada border to claim refugee status. They keep a loose track of how many refugees there were per week based on how many blankets they get.

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Staff at a local hotel in Emerson, Man., wash all the blankets the Canadian Border Services Agency uses to greet asylum seekers who brave the frigid temperatures to cross the U.S-Canada border to claim refugee status. They keep a loose track of how many refugees there were per week based on how many blankets they get.

As the sun went down Saturday, Canadian Border Services agents were still screening the more than a dozen asylum seekers who arrived the night before.

Sixteen men, women and children from Djibouti and five men from Somalia safely made the trek to Canada Friday evening.

By Sunday morning, the rumour around town was another 23 refugees claimants came in overnight.

It was “fake news,” a diner at the local Vietnamese restaurant joked, pointing to a visiting CNN crew parked outside. There were no illegal crossings reported at the border Sunday, RCMP said.

In this quiet community of about 700 not accustomed to the onslaught of media attention, rumours can run rampant.

The reeve of Emerson-Franklin, Greg Janzen, caught flack online for his comments in interviews warning residents to be careful of “illegals” and “criminals” crossing the border. 

He said there have been no dangerous encounters with asylum seekers yet, but “the more numbers you get, the law of averages is there is going to be a bad person in the mix.”

Border jumpers aren’t new to this border town, but the increasing number of them is.

The Manitoba RCMP intercepted 249 people in 2015 and 444 in 2016. If no one new arrives by Sunday night, there will have been 62 people intercepted in Manitoba since Jan. 1.

The question of whether or not residents should open their doors to those seeking refuge weighs on Gayle Knoutt, who's lived in Emerson for 20 years.

“It’s a conflicted feeling,"she said while waiting for Sunday service to start at Emmanuel Lutheran Church.

"I mean, we’re Christian people in this community. We don’t want to be turning people away that need help,” 

Knoutt said she keeps her doors locked at night for safety’s sake.

“I guess it’s a personal thing. There’s a lot of elderly people that are afraid and we don’t have local (police). We have the RCMP, but they’re not in town,” she said of the neighbouring Morris, Man. detachment.

Twenty-one volunteer firefighters and 12 emergency service providers are based in town.

Emerson’s population is largely elderly, with some long-haul truckers buying houses in town for sporadic stays, said Jeff French, volunteer fire chief.

There’s a smattering of families and about 65 kids who go to Emerson School, including French’s two daughters, ages five and seven.

"I don’t anticipate this is going to stop anytime soon," said French.

“We’re able to handle (the influx of refugees), but it is obviously a volunteer fire service, so everyone else has jobs, too."

It’s usually weekend nights when the crews get called on to help locate asylum seekers stranded in farmers’ fields in the wee hours of the mornings. Many make it about one-and-a-half kilometres past the border before being located and are picked up along Highway 75, French said.

The refugees — who are mainly from Somalia, Ghana and Djibouti — often bring cellphones and call 911 once they think they’ve arrived in Canada.

Some know to follow the glow of the red lights shining from neighbouring windmills in Letellier, Man., said Janzen, the reeve.

Back in March, Leonard Pappel, a retired grain farmer who’s lived in Emerson his entire 83 years, found boots, clothing and a duffel bag in his field -- items ditched by two border crossers who made it to safety, the CBSA told him.

He is among many in the community who are worried about what -- or who -- else might turn up once the snow melts.

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