In 2016, the Canada Border Services Agency recorded 6,960 people had walked across the Canada-U.S. border to claim asylum status. In 2017, an unprecedented 10,515 asylum seekers walked from the U.S. into Canada. For those seeking refuge in the dead of winter, conditions can be extreme. CBC News reported that, in December 2016, a Ghanaian man had his fingers surgically amputated due to extreme frostbite after making the trek from North Dakota into Manitoba. Two months later, the CBC the story of a group of refugees who walked into Manitoba from Minnesota. When interviewed by the CBC, one of the asylum seekers in that group recalled that, during the journey, a two-year-old boy had grown so cold and despondent that he told his mother he wanted to be left behind to die in the snow.
There are a number of reasons why refugees in the United States are walking across the border, including the belief that Canada will offer better treatment and resources than the U.S. On November 8, 2016, Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States. Trump campaigned as the law-and-order candidate, promising to deport illegal immigrants and saying he would remove protected status from various refugee groups. Fearing forced removal and deportation, many decided to walk to Canada and claim asylum.
Canada and the United States subscribe to the Safe Third Country Agreement. The treaty between the two countries stipulates that the first “safe” country a refugee enters must be the country that will process their asylum claim, with only minor exceptions. However, Canada is also part of the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that refugees will not be prosecuted if they enter a country illegally as long as they report to authorities and make a claim within a reasonable time frame.
There are three main provinces where the majority of asylum claims are made: British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec. In January 2017, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police recorded 19 claims made in Manitoba. That number jumped to 142 in February.
Emerson, Man., is a small town of less than 700 inhabitants, and one of the main entry points into the province. Its geographic proximity to Somali refugee communities in Minnesota makes it particularly accessible. While there is an official entry at the country’s border, some asylum seekers have instead opted to walk through wooded areas for long periods of time in order to reach Canada first, and then make a claim.