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Manitoba town pleads for federal help with refugee influx

The Canadian side of the Canada-U.S border crossing, where refugees make their way into the province, is seen in Manitoba.

LYLE STAFFORD/REUTERS

A small southern Manitoba town within sight of the U.S. border is pleading for federal help amid an influx of refugee claimants, including nearly two dozen this past weekend, who have endured the harsh prairie winter to cross into Canada.

The refugee claimants who arrived in Emerson, a small town of 700 across the border from North Dakota, are among a steady increase of illegal entries into Manitoba in recent years. Just before Christmas, two men from Ghana who passed through Emerson lost fingers to frostbite, their lawyer says.

The arrivals have also underscored the prospect that even more will make claims in Canada after being turned away from the United States, particularly in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees.

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Town officials in Emerson are scheduled to meet with the Canadian Border Security Agency and other officials on Thursday to iron out a security and accommodation plan for any subsequent arrivals.

"We know this is a federal problem, it just happens to be in our community," said Greg Janzen, the town's Reeve, who is sending the federal government a bill to draw attention to the resources his community needs. "We haven't heard a response yet, but I'm confident we'll get something, even if it's not exactly what we hope for."

On Saturday, the Mounties picked up 19 refugee claimants who had illegally crossed the border near Emerson, Mr. Janzen said. They brought them to CBSA but the agency was overwhelmed by the volume and asked Emerson for help. A municipal representative opened up the town's community hall for shelter.

Last year, Emerson responded to about 20 emergency-services calls related to border-crossers, an "unusual" number that has put a strain on those services, Mr. Janzen said.

"This has all been on our taxpayers so far, which really throws our fire department's budget, for instance, way out of whack," he said. "So what we're trying to do now is plan ahead [in expectation] that there's going to be a lot more people."

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Statistics provided by CBSA show the number of refugee claimants who illegally cross the border into Manitoba has been increasing for years.

There were 68 such cases in the 2013-14 fiscal year – a number that has been roughly doubling each year. In 2015-16, the agency recorded 321 refugee claimants illegally crossing into Manitoba. In the current fiscal year, there have already been 403 since April.

Most of the asylum seekers who crossed into Manitoba in the this fiscal year were from African countries, with Somalia topping the list.

"The numbers have risen over the last two or three years, but they're way down from where they were 10 years ago," Ralph Goodale, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, said of the yearly nationwide totals.

"Ten years ago, there were probably 15,000 to 20,000 a year that were in that category. Now, the number is about 7,000, so it's substantially reduced."

Mr. Goodale said he would be reviewing the issue and working with CBSA, the RCMP federal immigration officials and other branches of government to come up with a solution.

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Refugee claimants who cross the border face a harsh Manitoba winter, where temperatures with windchill are currently around minus 30 degrees. Bashir Khan, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer, represented the two men from Ghana who lost fingers due to frostbite.

Mr. Khan said the federal government needs to suspend the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which requires refugee claimants to request protection in the first safe country they arrive in, unless they qualify for an exception. The agreement is intended to prevent asylum-shopping.

Immigration advocates have been calling on Ottawa to suspend the agreement in light of Mr. Trump's recent policy moves in the United States, but the federal government here has said there are no plans to make any changes.

"People are putting their lives in danger, crossing the border illegally, in waist-high snow, slipping and falling in that snow …" Mr. Khan said. "You're putting people's lives in danger, that's what this law is doing."

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said on Monday that now is not the time to strengthen the Canada-U.S. border in Manitoba.

"I would hope that if someone comes to a door and they're freezing, that they would have that door opened," he said Monday.

With reports from Wendy Stueck

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