Not surprisingly I have had a few calls to my constituency office regarding the crossing of refugee claimants through Emerson.
Some people are upset about what they see as illegal actions on the part of refugee claimants who are avoiding border crossings. Others are concerned when they see young children being brought across the border during blizzard-like conditions and they wonder if a tragedy is inevitable especially once spring flooding arrives. And others feel that we need to do more to stop the flow of claimants.
I recently had the opportunity to attend a forum Mobilizing Compassion: Manitoba’s Refugee Claimants Crisis. The forum heard from experts in the field, frontline workers and claimants themselves. They asked: Why are refugee claimants crossing the border this way? What is the process to integrate them into the community after they arrive in Canada? What support is available and what more is needed?
There is no question that people are concerned. RCMP advise that the number of illegal border crossings has more than doubled over last year. However, this is not a situation exclusive to Manitoba, it is happening across the country, primarily in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec due largely to geography. Nor is the situation new, it has been occurring for years, but there has been an undeniable increase in the numbers.
So an obvious question is, why? Why are people crossing through fields instead of walking up to a border crossing and making a claim? The Safe Third Country Agreement with the U.S. allows both countries to acknowledge that each country is a safe place for refugees to land. The refugee would make their claim to stay in the first North American country where they land – whether that is the U.S. or Canada. At the Canadian border, if people are transiting through the United States trying to make a claim in Canada, most of them will be turned back and told they are able to make their claim in the U.S. because it’s a safe country. So by avoiding manned border stations, they avoid being turned back and can make a direct claim.
Meeting Razak Iyal — a Ghanaian refugee claimant who lost all of his fingers due to severe frostbite while crossing the border near Emerson on Christmas Eve — allowed me to hear first-hand what drives a person to walk hours through -30 temperatures without proper clothing just to make a refugee claim in Canada. The simplest answer is desperation and hope. You see Razak, after fleeing persecution in Ghana, had spent almost three years in a detention camp in Arizona before finally being released. He told me he lived each day in fear of deportation. So he made his way to Grand Forks where he and another person each paid $200 to get dropped off near the border where they were told to start walking. Razak had never heard of "frostbite" before much less how to dress for a Manitoba winter. A combination of exhaustion and the storm led to both individuals losing their gloves and toques. An almost fatal mistake as they trudged through waist deep snow.
"I remember putting my hands together and hearing the sound of glass" he said.
But it was hope that led all of us here at one point in our history, a hope for a better life.
While we look towards solutions, we cannot forget that we are dealing with people. We need to ensure not only the welfare of refugee claimants, but the continued safety and security of residents of border towns and volunteer first responders who find themselves in a role they never anticipated.
The federal government has an overarching role to play as the signatory to the Safe Third Country Agreement, but until they deal with what is undoubtedly a national issue, we will continue to show the compassion and willingness to help those in need that we are known for.