Asylum seekers growing more desperate to reach Canada


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OTTAWA — It is a video that should make your stomach clench at least a little.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/02/2017 (2231 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — It is a video that should make your stomach clench at least a little.

A man, his black balaclava and blue jeans caked with frost, crouches on the snow. As he is approached by a CBC reporter who was waiting along the U.S. border near Emerson, he raises his arms in the air as if he is about to be arrested. He has been walking for 21 hours across farm fields in North Dakota, aiming to make it into Canada, where he hopes a refugee claim will be granted.

When the reporter, Nick Purdon, tells him he is in Canada, the man blinks hard.

Hollywood couldn’t write a better tale — except this is no movie. It’s real.

The idea so many people are choosing to walk for so long, in such treacherous conditions, to get out of the United States and into Canada has made international headlines. One hears of people taking risks to flee oppressive regimes in faraway places, but America?

The climate in the U.S. has changed, and it’s not just because of President Donald Trump. People started fleeing for Canada years before Trump even announced he was running for president, but the numbers are growing. In 2013-14, it was 68. The next year, 136. In 2015-16, 340. Since April 1, it’s at least 470, including about 70 in the last seven weeks alone.

Many of those escaping to Canada have already been rejected by the U.S. as refugees. They are hoping Canada might be more open to their plight.

At least some of them go on to receive refugee status when they apply here, which suggests Canada and the U.S. do not have the kind of integrated refugee policy that lay beneath the assumptions of the Safe Third Country Agreement.

That agreement, signed more than a decade ago, says both countries are considered equally safe for refugees and whichever country a claimant lands in first is where they must make their claim. If the claimants stop at the border crossing, the guards will escort them back to the U.S. However, once they are on Canadian soil, even if they got here illegally, Canada is obliged to hear their case.

The response of the people of Emerson to this influx of refugees, some of whom knock on their doors in the middle of the night, freezing and desperate for help, is a testament to their generosity and compassion. The softness with which Mohamed was greeted by an RCMP officer in that video is heartwarming.

This issue, however, is a growing problem for the federal government,and could get worse if the spring thaw brings the proof some fear — that not everyone who has tried to make this trek has survived.

The NDP are among those who want Canada to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement. Doing that should end the risks people are taking to make it to Canada because they can then go right to the border office. B

ut it won’t stop the flood. In fact, it likely will make it bigger because it will eliminate the risky journey.

Some think Canada could stop the flood by simply sending anyone who comes across back to the U.S., but we can’t. International law prevents us from doing that once the claimants are on Canadian soil.

Thus far, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has been firm the Safe Third Country Agreement is not affected by Trump’s attempt to bar people from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.

Hussen said this week that executive order has been suspended by the courts and an asylum claimant in the U.S. will still get a fair hearing, which is what Canada expects under the agreement.

The problem here really isn’t that people are trying to make refugee claims in Canada. Almost 9,000 people have arrived in Canada to make an asylum claim in this fiscal year, according to statistics from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

The problem is the Safe Third Country Agreement has people putting their lives at risk to make a claim.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and every Canadian premier spoke out to say Canada is open to refugees and will welcome them. Suspending the agreement would prove Canada is listening to asylum seekers who say they would rather be in Canada.

Perhaps we should trust that if any of these claimants are illegitimate or a security risk, our protocols and screening will ferret them out and send them back home.

By opening our doors and letting them plead their case, Canada is standing up as the nation all those premiers proclaimed it to be.

And to those who will believe the people crossing the border to look for help are just trying to beat our system and get to the front of some undefined immigration line, I ask you this: would you walk for 21 hours in -17 C in order to get to the front of a line just because you wanted a job?

Or would you do it because you are hoping to finally find safety and peace after spending most of your life fleeing persecution and fear?

Mia Rabson is the Winnipeg Free Press parliamentary bureau chief.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @mrabson

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