The long road to Canada: asylum-seekers talk of dangerous three-continent voyage
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WINNIPEG — The perilous walk through frozen fields at the border between the United States and Manitoba was just the latest chapter of a three-continent, danger-filled journey for Mohammed and Mamood, two of the growing number of asylum-seekers who are hoping for a new life in Canada.
They say they had already walked through South American forests, crammed into over-filled boats, spent months in detention centres in the United States, and paid high fees to those who provided transport.
It was to escape what they say is the threat of death back in Ghana.
"We are not here to cause problem or something. No, we want to make here our home because we have lost our home. We have no place," Mohammed said Tuesday as he sat in the small two-bedroom apartment that serves as a temporary shelter for him, Mamood and four other recent arrivals. One bedroom has two sets of bunk beds with barely enough room to walk in between.
The two men agreed to talk about their experience but asked that their last names not be used for fear that their friends and family in Ghana may suffer. Neither man wanted to provide details on why they fled Ghana, other than what Mamood called "personal issues with the community."
The Canadian Press talked to their lawyer, Bashir Khan, who confirmed their applications before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. They'll have to be specific when they appear before the refugee board in the coming weeks.
Mohammed — a slight, friendly 31-year-old — says he left Ghana in 2014. He flew to Brazil, then to Ecuador, and started making his way further north through Colombia and Panama. He took buses or walked, sometimes through the night, he said.
He recalls going through thick forests and at one point, getting on a crowded boat for a seven-hour trip further north, hiding under a plastic tarp with others.
"You have to pay the fisherman, so you pay I think $600 and they smuggle you at night."
He eventually got to the United States at a border crossing south of San Diego, he says, and was immediately detained for 10 months. By February 2016, he was released, and later lived in New York, where he learned his application to stay in the U.S. had been denied.
In late November, he decided to go to Canada and took a bus to Minneapolis on the false assumption that the city was close to the Canadian border. It was at the Minneapolis bus station where he met Mamood, he says.
"We speak the same language, so we talk and he said he is going to Canada ... and I said 'we can just go together.'"
Mamood, two years younger and somewhat taller than Mohammed, tells a similar story — a lengthy trek through Central America, making a refugee claim after getting to the United States, being detained for several months and eventually fleeing toward the Canadian border when his refugee application was denied.
Because both men had first applied for refugee status in the U.S. they would be turned back at an official border crossing under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement. If they managed to get on Canadian soil and were then arrested, they could stay while their refugee applications were processed.
At the Minneapolis bus station, the men say, they were shocked to learn they were at least a six-hour drive from the Canadian border. A cabbie charged them $600 each to take them to the area just across from Emerson, Man. — a community that has become a hot spot for illicit crossings in recent weeks.
They ended up being dropped off near a sugar factory that turned out to be a seven-hour walk to the border. The say they dressed in multiple sweaters and jackets. It was relatively mild weather for late fall on the Prairies, but they occasionally got wet and very cold.
"There's some waters that you have to pass through ... when you come out, your leg will be like frozen," Mohammed said.
Eventually, they crossed through a field on the border. It was after midnight when they reached a hotel in Emerson.
"We pushed the door, it was open. And we just entered and sleep in the corridor until one and a half hours (later), the guy came and he called police for us," Mohammed said.
The men's lawyer says while the number of people crossing the border in recent weeks has jumped, the issue pre-dates the election of U.S. president Donald Trump.
The problem, Khan says, is that refugee claimants in the U.S. are often held for months in detention centres without being able to get legal help or call their home countries for documentation.
"This is the lack of access to justice that happened, and that was under (former) president Obama," Khan said.
Khan, who specializes in immigration and refugee cases, normally handles very few illicit border-crossers in the winter. This year has been different.
"In seven years, I've never seen anyone come in the winter like this from the U.S.," he said.
"It's always ... spring until late fall when people would come, and they would trickle in. It wouldn't be this kind of desperation."