After two refugee claimants from Ghana nearly froze to death Dec. 24 walking into Canada, the Ghanaian community in Manitoba is warning others of the dangers.
"There may be more in the U.S.A. planning similar trips but we have informed those here not to encourage others to make similar trips due to the dangers involved during this time of the year," said Frank Indome, vice-president of the Ghanaian Union of Manitoba. Community members have visited the two men at the Health Sciences Centre, where Seidu Mohammad expects to lose his fingers to frostbite.
"We do provide information to those out there but we cannot prevent them from making the trip," Indome said, acknowledging the desperation of some people to get to a safe country they can call home. A man named Mohammad and his travelling companion were rescued by a trucker after trudging for more than seven hours from North Dakota into Manitoba through hip-high snow when it was -20 C. Mohammad told the Free Press he fled to Canada after his asylum application in the U.S. was rejected. He feared being returned to Ghana because he’s gay.
"In Ghana, it is a crime to be gay under the criminal code," said Winnipeg immigration lawyer Bashir Khan. A person convicted of having "unnatural carnal knowledge" involving "sexual intercourse with a person in an unnatural manner" faces up to three years in prison, a 2014 report by the Global Legal Research Center of the U.S. Law Library of Congress said. Outside the legal system, the punishment for Ghanaians can be even worse thanks to religious taboos concerning homosexuality, said Khan.
Manitoba has seen a rise in the number of refugee claims from Ghana, according to statistics compiled by the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council (MIIC). At Welcome Place, the council has a worker who helps process inland refugee claims. In the last three months of 2016, MIIC helped 77 people who crossed into Canada file refugee claims, including 18 from Ghana. In November alone, 10 Ghanaians filed refugee claims. Previously, there had been so few they didn’t rank a mention.
Khan has represented some of them. In 2012, it was victims of fighting between two tribes who feared for their safety if they were returned to Ghana, he said. In 2014, it was two women who were accused in Ghana of being witches and feared they’d be put to death if they were sent back.
Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) says the vast majority of African refugee claimants in Manitoba are from Somalia. The total number of refugee claimants showing up in the province has been on the rise for several years — from 68 in the 2013-2014 fiscal year to 410 in the first nine months of the 2016-2017 fiscal year, CBSA data shows.
More are risking life and limb — swimming in the hazardous Red River and wading through snow in the freezing cold — because they have an even greater fear of being sent back to the country they fled, said Khan.
"I’ve heard the same story from Somali and Ghanaian people over the last five years," he said. After months of journeying by sea and air and over land through South and Central America and Mexico, they get to the U.S. and file an asylum claim. The asylum seekers are sent to huge immigration detention centres where they’re held for months.
Without funds for a lawyer, English-language proficiency or access to supporting evidence, their claims are most often denied. If they have money for a lawyer, they can file an appeal but must remain in detention and wait many more months for their appeal to be heard. If they don’t appeal it, they have to be released because, by law, a refugee claimant who has been denied asylum must be released within six months, Khan said. They can’t be returned to their country of origin until they have proper travel documents such as a passport, and that can take a long time to get from their home countries. During the wait, U.S. Homeland Security has them on strict reporting conditions, said Khan. At any time, they could be scooped up and put on a plane back to the country they were so desperate to escape. That’s when they head for Canada.
"It’s their last hope and chance for the fair hearing they never had," said Khan, adding that Canada’s immigration system abides by the UN Convention on Refugees. "It says that no state can prohibit or criminalize the entry of a refugee claimant for the act of entering the state." It’s incorrect to say that refugee claimants are "illegally" entering Canada, and it’s why they’re not charged with that offence when they arrive in Canada. Many have a legitimate claim and can prove it if they’re given the chance. Those who can’t are returned to their country of origin.