OTTAWA — The weather is frigid on the border between North Dakota and the Canadian province of Manitoba, but still they keep on coming: a growing flow of asylum seekers tramping through frozen farms, in flight from the United States, hoping for refuge in Canada.
“It’s a new underground railroad,” said Bashir Khan, an immigration lawyer in Winnipeg, Manitoba, referring to the clandestine network that slaves used in the mid-19th century to escape North to freedom. Last weekend, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that it picked up 22 people near the border town of Emerson, after they had walked for as long as four hours in subzero temperatures, risking frostbite and worse. They were taken to offices of the Canadian Border Services Agency, where they all made refugee claims.
In the past six months alone, Khan said he’s handled at least 30 claims of asylum seekers who sneaked over the border. Two of Khan’s clients, 24-year-old Seidu Mohammed and 35-year-old Razak Lyal, suffered severe frostbite when they got lost in a farmer’s field in waist-high snow on Dec. 24 en route to Canada. Mohammed has lost all of his fingers, and Lyal is left only with his thumbs. They have asylum hearings scheduled for next month.
Mohammed fled to the United States from Ghana in 2015, claiming asylum because of his sexual orientation. When his claim was denied, he made his way to Minneapolis. There he met Lyal, who is also Ghanaian, and the two traveled north to the border.
Khan said the increased flow of refugees north has become acute since the election of President Trump, particularly after last month’s travel ban was announced. “Nobody ever comes to Manitoba in the dead of winter. It shows how desperate they are,” he said.
“They really are afraid of what’s happening in the U.S.," said Rita Chahal, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. “They’re concerned about deportations and about not having a fair hearing in the U.S.” Chahal said her agency opened 270 new cases in the first nine months of 2016, compared with 60 or 70 in a typical full year.
The asylum seekers are taking these risks because of the Safe Third Country agreement between Canada and the United States, which means a refugee claimant must make their claim in the country of arrival. If they first land in the United States, Canadian authorities will send them back if they try to make a claim at the border. The agreement presumes each country is safe for refugees and is aimed at reducing “asylum shopping.”
But the agreement only is enforced at formal ports of entry like airports and land crossings. If you cross into Canada by foot and call the police or flag down a passing car, you’re free to claim asylum. With no barriers on the vast prairie, crossing over to Manitoba is relatively simple — in good weather.
Most of the claimants are Africans, with Somalis dominating. Abdinasir Abdulahi, an immigration lawyer in Minneapolis, said word of mouth is spreading in the city’s large Somali community that Canada is a viable alternative. “I had a court date a few days ago for a client who was wasn’t there. I bet he’s crossed into Canada,” he told The Post.
Abdulahi said that even before the U.S. election, asylum claims were becoming more difficult for Somalis, and the denial rate has been rising. In part, it’s because of the Real ID Act, which requires asylum seekers to show identification documents they often can’t access or that have been destroyed because of the war and chaos that has prevailed in Somalia for years.
The U.S. system is much harsher than Canada’s, according to Khan, the Winnipeg immigration lawyer. Most asylum seekers are held in detention centers and don’t have adequate access to legal advice before their hearings, which are often held in the detention facility.
In Canada, the refugees are given access to a legal-aid lawyer and are free on their own recognizance. Khan said the success rate for asylum claims he handles is about 80 to 90 percent. And he praised the rural Manitobans who pick up the refugees as they cross the border. “Canadian farmers are very hospitable and polite. They have good values.”
Farhan Ahmed, one of the asylum seekers who crossed over last weekend, is a Somali who fled the country in 2014, fearing for his life. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, he flew to Brazil and traveled through South and Central America before crossing into the United States, where he was initially detained in Texas. His asylum application was denied, but thanks to a bureaucratic mix-up he was released under supervision and given work authorization.
Ahmed worked as a truck driver, but immigration officers began looking for him. That’s what took him to the Manitoba border, which he crossed with a group that included a family with children. They walked for four hours into Canada before calling 911.
Already Ahmed told the CBC that he is feeling welcome. “Canada is a good country. It is a friendly country. I wish we [can get] protection because I cannot go back to Somalia, and I have a wife and kids I haven’t see in like two, three years,” he said. “I wish Canada that they give me a new life.”